Cathartic Venting

Every once in a while I read a student paper and feel the need to do some cathartic venting. In the senior capstone, for example, students review the meaning, value and significance of their liberal arts education. We talk about the value of scientific inquiry, the importance of a historical perspective, the meaning of aesthetic awareness...

Most students dutifully jump through the assignment hoops. By the time they become seniors, a certain amount of institutionalization inevitably sets in. Even so, many tell me they like the chance to draw their college experience into a broader focus. Sometimes, however, in lieu of actually doing an assignment, a student will go off on a rant about higher education. I have a high tolerance for this. I realize that much of education is a form of ritualized annoyance. But sometimes I lose patience and find myself venting right back. Here is a recent example (I've changed the student's name):


So your point is that a liberal arts education a waste of time? As you say, you came to college to get a better job, not to read poetry or talk about the War of 1812. Well, you are not alone in the belief that a person should just focus on a career in college and muddle through the rest. The nurses in my class sometimes call what I teach the BS part of their BSN. I mean, what is college really for? It's to help you get a job and make money, right? There's a lot to be said for your view. But let me tell you a story--my story actually--and then you can let me know what you think.

Before I started college I had a good job. I made about $15 an hour as a union construction worker, pretty good jack back in in the day. I was 23 years old, drove a red Italian sports car, drank only single malt scotch, and smoked a box of premium cigars a month. I always had $100 in my pocket, too, just in case I wanted to buy something. But all I knew about the world was payday, quitting time, and having a good weekend. I thought that's what life was supposed to be about.

But I was ignorant. My entire life existed between a bar, a job site and TV set. In many ways, I was not unlike a cow or a dog that is only motivated by eating, sleeping and feeling good. To a certain degree, I was living the life of an animal. What drove me was just a desire for pleasure or the wish to avoid pain. Now Socrates says "the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being." Note: he doesn't say that an unexamined life is unpleasant. It might be pleasant as hell to be loaded for a month, but that's not really a human life. A human life has got to be about something more than pouring liquor down your pie-hole. Indeed, Socrates says that examining your life, questioning it, figuring out who you are and what you believe is the point of being alive. If you don't do it, you're squandering your potential as a human being.

Those courses in your liberal arts core were not a waste of time, in my opinion. They were opportunities to formulate what you think about very big issues: Why are things the way they are? (History); Why do people see things differently? (Psychology); How do other people live and is it better? (Literature, Diversity); How should I behave toward others? (Ethics, Philosophy). See?

Any jackass can be trained to sell tires or plug a memory board into a computer, but it takes a human being functioning at his best to formulate good answers to these questions. Now maybe your courses weren't well taught. Maybe the instructors didn't stimulate you to really wrestle with the meat of life. I went to college. I know these kinds of courses and professors exist, but that doesn't mean liberal arts education is a waste.

It's useful to remember that the word "liberal" has nothing to do with politics in this instance. It comes from liberalis, which means "to free". And liberal arts education—if it's any good at all—should free you from narrowness of mind, which is the worst prison you can be in because you don't even know you're in it.

Education made me more myself. It helped me to answer some big questions and know where I stand. My ideas now are based hard thinking, not the half-baked prejudices of my youth. Anyway, that's my story, and if I had my way students would take four solid years of courses that free the mind. Then they could finish up with a semester learning a career. How long does it take to learn to sell tires? Please. But that's just me.

On your response, don't worry about trying to agree with me. I don't grade down when you disagree with my views. Actually I admire it if it's a well-considered view. I do, however, grade down when it’s clear you didn’t do the reading and so decided to go into a rant about the liberal arts that had nothing to do with the assignment. Just do the reading and write a thoughtful, sincere response. It won't kill you, I promise. Who knows? It might even make you think.


Radostina said…
Well said, Professor Quest!
Great response to all the liberal arts haters out there! :)

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