Seize a well-rounded education, pursue the liberal artsBy Evan Ward | 04/24/2012 11:10pm
This week’s Crimson White has featured the reflections of many soon-to-be graduates. They will detail successes, failures, memorable exploits and special relationships. Many of these musings will flightily skip from one high point to another, seeking to wring some meaning from college’s most memorable moments. Most do not, however, deeply reflect on the reason we are here in the first place: to be educated.
I’m not being facetious when I submit that many of us, myself included, have at times forgotten our very purpose on this campus. We are here, first and foremost, to be educated. Any serious reflection must begin here, for only after you acknowledge your purpose can you ask yourself, “Was I successful?”
Well, what exactly constitutes a good education? What are the most important things I could have learned? Did I acquire them? These things are within reach here, but they are often missed. They are missed because we have largely traded our liberal education for a vocational one. Once the core of higher education, the humanities have now been branded as useless. My parting words to campus are these: when we relinquish the liberal arts, we cheapen our education and rob it of its conscience.
And there is no question that we have relinquished the arts. We have wholeheartedly accepted the idea that a good education is not so much about learning to think critically and challenge assumptions, but more about becoming career-ready and achieving that success, which is defined by money and trophies. Who hasn’t at one time or another heard students cracking jokes about the financial viability of the humanities? We have relegated the arts to second-class status, and what have we elevated in their place? Pre-professional studies in business, pre-law, pre-medicine, management and engineering carry the most prestige. There is certainly nothing wrong with these fields of study; they simply cannot comprise a complete education on their own. This is because pre-professional degrees are studies in technique. They emphasize methods and strategies but contain little intellectual content.
Emphasis on pre-professional education perverts the college campus, once a domain of high thinking, into a careerist playground. Success in the pre-professional world is narrowly defined in terms of market rewards. Thus, campus begins to look less like a wide-open spectrum of educational options and more like a vertical ladder. In such an environment, the object is always to learn just enough to get to the next rung and to climb higher than one’s classmates. Those things that we used to consider supplementary to a good education — networking, Greek life and honor societies — have become the sole basis of our education.
The student products of such a system are stunted versions of what they might have been. We memorize tid-bits of knowledge only when we have to, while we simultaneously fight to be perceived as intelligent. Posing broad, universal questions and thinking creatively have no immediate or deferred market payoff, so we refrain from doing so and persist through our college years as shallow thinkers with no intellectual backbone.
The arts expose us to great thinkers and works that remove ourselves from our own time. They grant perspective. They are at once able to link us to a human past, while equipping us to ask the broad moral and social questions that need to be answered before we can construct a better future. Asking such questions is a responsibility everyone should bear, but we shirk it as we leave the humanities in the dust.
In short, the liberal arts have a conscience; vocational training does not.
The decline of the liberal arts, on this campus and others, is reflective of a decline in conscience. In the absence of a liberal education, students inherit only those values that they glean from discussions of business models, financial strategies and mathematical formula. These are no values at all, and the amoral creatures that emerge from these classrooms will go out and become the corrupt politicians and corporate stooges of tomorrow. The aggregate affect of the nationwide retreat from the humanities will be devastating.
So, seize your opportunity for a good education. The depth of human content offered by the humanities is a well from which we can draw upon in order to question assumptions and derive values. If you are involved in pre-professional studies, supplement your curriculum with a bit of literature, history or ethics. Seek to become a well-rounded thinker, not just a technician. If you are involved in the arts, pursue them fully and for their own sake. Don’t treat them as a mere vehicle to law or graduate school. Prepare yourself to question entrenched structures, rather than service them. Seek the most important things that there are to know, and do it while the opportunity is still available.