Letter to the Editor: In Defense of a Liberal Arts Education

It is traditional for at least some quotient of graduating seniors to be deeply disappointed by the selection of their college’s commencement speaker. It is also understandable that the selection of an academic might spark the smoldering anxieties many seniors must feel, as they enter the job market in the midst of a recession with nothing more than a liberal arts degree, and a pretty expensive one at that. I consider Martha Nussbaum an extraordinary individual, whose distinction lies in the way she has used her training in ethics and classics to address pragmatic issues of enormous significance: from gay marriage and the empowerment of self-employed women in India to the formulation of international standards for quality of life that go beyond narrow measures of gross domestic product. But I leave the defense of Professor Nussbaum’s selection to others. We’ll all find out how good or bad she is come May 16. Here I want to address the other important issues that Bill Stoklosa raised in his article in the April 8 issue of the Maroon-News.

Bill is not just an excellent student whom I have had in several classes, he’s also my advisee, and so I felt his expressions of disappointment keenly. He and I have communicated about the piece a great deal and I’m glad to have come to understand better the sources of that disappointment. I feel totally settled, and my respect and regard for him remain intact. I also appreciate the more nuanced criticisms he offered in his piece on April 15 regarding aspects of the learning environment here at Colgate. Indeed, as has so often been the case, Bill’s articulate, candid critique got me thinking, this time about the value of a liberal arts education.

Many of you may be asking what you have gotten out of your four years at Colgate, especially those of you with a degree that does not clearly translate into a job, like History, English, Philosophy, Art History or Religion. Bill wrote, “I have spent hours upon hours reading debates upon unsolvable problems, articles by academics that think that they know just what happened hundreds or even thousands of years ago and busted my rear-end to do research papers that one other person in the whole world is going to read.” What good IS it to break your head over questions that have no answer, to enter into speculative debates with insufficient evidence, to stay up all night on a paper only your professor will read? What do you really gain from this kind of education?

I would submit that one of the most important things you gain is a voice, your voice. If we, your professors, have done our jobs right, you will not be walking mouth-pieces spouting our values and politics. Rather, by immersing yourself for four years in debates over unsolvable problems (What is religion? Why do we believe we know what we know?), as generations of students have done before, you find your voice. You learn to articulate what you believe, in words that are your own, not plagiarized from a website or cribbed from the latest amusing talk show host. By assessing the arguments of historians about what happened long ago and far away, you learn to critique the way evidence is used to substantiate claims. You learn to ask why you believe what you believe and cultivate the habit of patiently re-evaluating those beliefs in the face of new evidence. You will do this throughout your lives – in the polling booth, in the emergency room, whenever you are faced with tough choices in your personal, professional and civic lives.

And why expend all this energy writing papers only one person will read? I’m sure with just weeks left in the semester, a lot of you are asking this question right now. Actually, in every instance, at least two people read your papers – you, the author, and your professor. And in that dialogical exchange, something magical happens. Through it, you become more yourself. If you write papers only for the grade, trying to suss out what the professor thinks or “likes,” then the process will be short-circuited.

This brings me to another point, which deserves more attention than I can give it here, namely the contradiction felt by both students and faculty between the ideal of learning for personal growth and the necessity of grades. The ideals of a liberal education are, in my view, inevitably distorted by the fact that college plays a credentialing function in our society; employers and professional schools need to know that a GPA of X from Colgate means something, hence professors have to rank and grade students, which in turn leads to anxiety and disingenuousness on all sides. This comes home especially hard when competition for jobs and spaces in professional schools is intense, as it is now. But if we can take the long view, the student’s distinctive ordeal of writing papers for “just one person,” when undertaken with sincerity, is part of an educational process that helps bring out a voice, your voice. This is your greatest asset wherever you end up after graduation.

This may seem like more of the kind of “rah-rah” liberal arts rhetoric that rings hollow for Bill and other students. For them, I have another thought: the trajectories of liberal arts college graduates, especially with degrees in the humanities, are not usually linear. Typically, people graduate, they work at some kind of job, and then another and then another.

Through social networks (established with help from the well-educated, well-socialized, sometimes wealthy friends they have met in college), and often through further education, they parlay that on-the-job work experience into the career or careers that ultimately bring them both meaning and money. But those personal networks do not work very well unless you can present yourself authentically, using your hard won individual voice to articulate who you are, what you believe in and why.