the Liberal Arts
Tuesday, June 7, 2011
In Defense of Liberal Arts
This morning I read an excellent short article by A.M. O’Neill urging people to be thoughtful about what they say to new college graduates in these difficult times. It contained an uncommon amount of insight and good common sense. You can read it if you like at www.cnn.com/2011/LIVING/06/08/dont.tell.graduate.rs/index.html?hpt=hp_bn8
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While you are congratulating new college graduates, here are some things you should not say to them.
(1) What can you do with that degree?
No one poses this question to electrical engineering students. But ask a roomful of liberal arts folks if they've heard and every hand goes up. It's frustrating for them. Ultimately, what really matters is whether they have developed the critical analysis skills to help them succeed.
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This is good advice.
Even though a technical specialty may present more immediate opportunities, a liberal arts degree is the key to a thousand opportunities over the course of a lifetime. The value in the liberal arts degree, at least partly, is in the broad perspective it provides and the wide range of abilities it engenders. In the long term, that is probably as financially rewarding as a technical degree to the individual who focuses his or her effort. In the short term, it is probably not as lucrative. But as any liberal arts major worth his salt will tell you, getting rich is not the point.
I have two major and two minor area of study in the humanities. With my B.A. degree to open doors, I have traveled two wildly different careers, in the military and as an educator. I feel that my professional experience would have been incomplete without either. What technical degree offers such flexibility? My liberal arts studies broadened my world view, made me a more well-rounded person, and trained me to grasp "the big picture." My liberal arts background has kept me intrigued with the world in a way no technical degree ever could have.
And notice this: Even three decades later, I am still fascinated with the subjects I studied. They frame the painting that is my life. I am pleased with and proud of my decision to study what I love. I wouldn't have it any other way.
At this point, I feel the need to point out for some reader who may be confused that, contrary to popular misunderstanding, the term 'liberal arts' has nothing to do with political affiliation. The word 'liberal' is from the Latin word 'liber,' which means 'free.' Notice the similarity to the word 'liberty.' Historically, the 'liberal arts' were understood to be those subjects appropriate for study by free people.
For those of you who are curious, my majors were in Religion and History, with additional study in Education.
My advice to people at all stages of life is this. Seek what you value. Do what you love. Keep your mind and spirit free. All else will follow.
Best wishes for your continuing education, whether in college, via self-study, or in the school of life.
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Postscript: Scholars who are so inclined may want to follow up with more reading.
An excellent short article on a similar topic can be found at www.thedigeratilife.com/blog/liberal-arts-education.
For those of you who want to dive into this topic headfirst, a deep, dark, intelligent analysis of the current state of liberal arts education can be found at http://theteemingbrain.wordpress.com/2009/05/18/americas-colleges-at-a-crossroads-part-3/.