On the Liberal Arts
First trip done! I'm back from two weeks in South and Latin America. In Panama, I visited a school where one of my college friends, Nash, teaches history and the IB Theory of Knowledge class. I hung out with him briefly the evening before I went to his school, and he mentioned that he might "sic a few of [his] students" on me (his words; not mine).
So there I was in the school library, happily talking with a group of interested juniors about the Common App, Winter Term, and the possibilities for studying abroad while majoring in a lab science. And, because I know Nash, I was keeping one wary eye on the door.
Sure enough, two ninth graders wandered in. I saw them nudge up to the college counselor. "Miss, which one is the liberal arts school?" they asked, sotto voce (which wasn't very sotto, after all).
She pointed helpfully at me.
I composed my face and waited patiently as they sidled over.
"We want to know--"
"Mr A sent us---"
"We'll get extra credit--" (A grunt; he'd been elbowed in the ribs.)
And then, in unison: "What we want to know is, what is the value of a liberal arts degree?"
Nash, you salty salty dog.
But it's a question definitely worth thinking about. What is the value of a liberal arts degree, especially to students who live in a part of the world where the liberal arts aren't part of the regular academic landscape? Universities in South America tend to concentrate on preparing students directly for professional degrees. At age 18, students decide whether they're going to be doctors, lawyers, professors, businessmen, etc, and follow that path right out of high school. It seems decadent and perhaps even unwise to spend another four years taking a wide variety of courses before deciding on a grad degree, and that's if you even end up pursuing further studies. When they're already set with a career path, what can a liberal arts degree offer?
Indulge me. One of my favorite essays on the liberal arts is by T. Kaori Kitao, former art history professor at Swarthmore College. The following passage is, to me, perhaps one of the greatest arguments for the liberal arts.
Liberal arts education forces students to diversify their efforts and inculcates in them a feeling for a broad horizon and a panoramic view. For this reason they not only learn to think well, but they also gain confidence that they can learn whatever there is to learn whenever a need arises. So they can quickly adapt to changing situations, learn to adopt new jobs, and maneuver through life inventively....
Ultimately, the most profound reward of liberal arts education is four years of free inquiry, the privilege and joy of learning by being expansive, venturesome, inquisitive, and inventive, and even a little irresponsible in a positive way, without worrying about a career.
What I take from this is that a liberal arts education prepares you for a lifetime of exploring, of building your various expertises, of seeing the broader context for the projects with which you involve yourself. Liberal arts encourages you to be curious and, in so doing, to be interesting. You're more than a brain soaking up your class lessons: you're a teacher, an empathetic colleague, a community member, a leader, a brainstormer, a logistics expert, a solver of problems, a forward thinker. You learn how to deal with what comes at you, and to do that well. You "maneuver through life inventively," with intention and purpose and meaning.
Oberlin's president, Marvin Krislov, had this to say about the liberal arts at Oberlin:
We teach our students to become lifelong learners who are their own best teachers. We teach them to take intellectual risks and to think laterally--to understand how the humanities, the arts, and the sciences inform, enrich, and affect each other. By connecting diverse ideas and themes across the academic disciplines, Oberlin students learn to better reason and analyze, and to express their creativity and their ideas. They are capable of thinking and acting globally and locally.
Liberal arts graduates see their disciplines in the context of a much broader, global landscape. Our biology majors are concerned with food rights. Our politics majors take their ideas and turn them into songs. Philosophy major? Go ahead; become an award-winning screenwriter. One English major even won the Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine.
They say knowledge is power. And knowledge with curiosity? That's power for life.
Nash's 9th graders nodded, satisfied. They smiled and waved goodbye, and off they went to claim their immeasurable imaginary extra credit points.
I packed up my materials, shook hands with the bemused guidance counselor, and continued on to the next school and the next set of bright faces.