“You’re talking rot!” (Why the Liberal Arts and Sciences Still Matter)

Nothing that you will learn in the course of your studies will be of the slightest possible use to you in after life, save only this, that if you work hard and intelligently you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot, and that, in my view, is the main, if not the sole, purpose of education.

—John Alexander Smith, 1914

Even though it was more than a century ago when John Alexander Smith, a University of Oxford professor of moral philosophy, opened his course with this counterintuitive utterance, the core of his message is as essential today as it was not only then, but for centuries before that.

Today you’ll find few people calling out someone for “talking rot”. (Using an anachronism like that is a quick way to get an eye-roll.) However, the ability to identify shaded truth, logical fallacies, slanted rhetoric, even demagoguery, or—to quote so many college admissions publications—the ability to “think critically” remains one of the most important things an education should develop and sharpen.

It’s something liberal arts and sciences programs—either liberal arts colleges (like Lawrence University or Williams College) or liberal arts core curricula at some comprehensive universities (like Marquette or Notre Dame)—have been doing for generations.

But the liberal arts had been around long before these academic upstarts started delivering them. Since the time of the Roman Empire, the liberal arts were those things studied by free persons—grammar, dialectic, rhetoric, geometry, arithmetic, music, astronomy.

You might recognize their allegorized images (below) from their class picture, painted in the late 16th century by Flemish painter, Maarten de Vos.

Today’s liberal arts and sciences typically comprise the arts and humanities (like literature, languages, philosophy, history, fine/performing arts) and sciences (math, natural and social science).

A liberal arts and sciences education tests our ability to investigate and understand the nature of an organism, the application of a theory, the behavior of a crowd, the principles of a political system, the meaning of a poem, the causes of an event, the consequences of an argument, or the composition of a symphony. They help us see the complexity of both/and, rather than either/or.

At its best, the study of the liberal arts and sciences develops the abilities to find similarities among dissimilar things, common ground among the uncommon, meaning in the midst of meaninglessness. It can transform one—as David Burrows, provost of Lawrence University, often says—from “merely reflecting the light of others to generating one’s own light.”

“Sure. That’s the nice stuff you find in college admissions brochures,” people will often challenge. “But will it help you get a job?”

We’ll take up that challenge tomorrow. (Rest assured; we have an answer.)

Note: A long (really long) version of this appeared in an article I wrote for the American Society of Quality in June 2011. IHRTLUHC on myself, I suppose.

In the spirit of Halloween, another one of those scary “Is College Worth It?” stories

In this morning’s Today Show, we were presented with yet another variation on what has become an all-too-familiar story running with increasing frequency in the heat of the college application season: “Is college worth it?”

We’ll save you the suspense. The answer—like it usually is for these stories—is “yes”, but first you must pass through a haunted house of drama and factoids.

First act: Usually these stories start with a liberal arts major (in this case, a French major) who graduated into a world reluctant to hire her because of “her limited skill set.”

Second act: The recent graduate, faced with a college debt of $50,000, “settles” for a job that does not employ the skills she learned in her major (in this case, working as a customer service rep for an awning company).

Third act: Cut to the reporter (in this case, financial expert, Jean Chatzky) back in the studio summarizing the state of affairs for the host (in this case, Matt Lauer), who serves as a proxy for the target audience (in this parents of college-bound students). The exchange usually goes like this:

  1. Proof point: Flash a screen with data showing the difference in lifetime earnings between bachelor’s degrees holders and high school diploma holders (about $1 million; so, yes, it’s technically worth it).
  2. Counterpoint: But what about that double-whammy of debt and unemployability?
  3. Solutions offered:
    1. save your money by attending community college then four-year college (a viable option for many)
    2. pick an in-demand major, like medical technology, nursing, education, math & computer science, or engineering
    3. corollary: watch out for those majors that don’t have jobs named after them (e.g., things like “English” or “history” or “philosophy”)

And there, in a three-minute story, you have some one-size-fits-all advice on college and major selection.

We cannot ignore an economy that continues to present significant challenges to all of us. We cannot ignore that there are students out there taking on extraordinary debt to attend college. (In news stories, there is generally a direct relationship between the size of the debt and the level of tension in the story.) We acknowledge that there are a number of in-demand majors, such as those listed above, that have clearer prospects (though certainly no guarantees) for employment than others. There is comfort in certainty.

But what if you’re not interested in those majors? What if you are one of those students for whom a liberal arts major at a liberal arts college is the right fit?

Take heart: the college investment for many people is not simply an investment in job training for your first gig out of college. As we mentioned in an earlier blog, an investment in a place like Lawrence University is an investment for a lifetime, which will comprise, quite likely, more than your first job out of college: perhaps a trip to graduate or professional school; a career change or two; and a host of experiences that will call upon your abilities to find common ground with people who look, think, act, and believe differently than you do. It’s our job to prepare you for all of these by pushing you to become: a nimble, lifelong learner; a strong compelling writer; a creative problem solver; a critical thinker; a competent arguer; and a person equally adept at independence and collaboration. In other words, an eminently employable person.

And one last thing for you budding liberal arts majors out there: Matt Lauer pursued a telecommunications major at Ohio University, a liberal arts college. Jean Chatzky earned a B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania in—wait for it—English.