Saturday, March 11, 2006

A Liberal Education, Part Two

Ginny, an English professor who is a regular poster over at ChicagoBoyz had a comment to Carl's post about a liberal education. She was having problems with the comment feature and submitted this to me as an email. With her permission I am putting it up here as a "guest post" for it deserves more room than to be buried in the comments:

Anyone who sees a liberal arts education as a means and not as an end probably shouldn't be majoring in liberal arts.

At one point, two grad students in cultural geography worked at my business;they had huge piles of education debt. Their theory was that the country as a whole should pay these off because they weren't going into lucrative fields. I thought that was deeply offensive. They were going to an extremely inexpensive land grant school and chose to pile up those debts. Exactly why did the world owe them a living? I had the same attitude toward a really interesting guy I generally liked who had gotten his Ph.D. in Harvard in pre-Semitic languages. He, too, seemed to believe that the nation/world owed him a job a good deal better than the minimum wage all three had contracted for at my little business. While these people were really likeable (well, some of the time; you won't be surprised they weren't the most competent workers I'd hired), their positions seemed to me not all that attractive. The skills that had gotten them through grad school could have been applied, with a little imagination, into getting them more challenging jobs.

On the other hand, last week a good student in my junior college lit class came in to tell me he would like to skip class - he and his wife were going out to celebrate his admission to vet school (harder around here to get into than med school). In an earlier interview, they'd looked over his 120 hours in science, his high grade point, his desire to get a d.v.m. followed by a ph.d. to do research and said, well, you look pretty good, but what's this with you never taking a lit class? So, post B.A., he'd come back to take my class. And he has been an engaged student who is clearly getting something out of the class. He is not the first vet student (or med student) who has wandered into my class after they got their B.A.s and before they left for grad work. I figure that if one of the best vet schools in the country recognizes that lit helps their students, they know what they are talking about.

Liberal arts teaches us to approach problems from different perspectives; it gives depth to our perspectives and a sense of breadth as we note the universality of human virtues and vices. I can't think of a better preparation for life. But it is not specific. The only skill that it teaches, as a general rule, is writing (reading a lot, writing papers,broadening vocabularies - all these are necessary to good writing). But it teaches much content. And never underestimate how much broadening a vocabulary broadens the precision and depth with which we think.

My belief is that all engineers go out at a decent salary; but the ones with verbal skills and perspective are likely to move into management a lot faster. Liberal arts people go out at lousy salaries, but they have something they will use for the rest of their lives. Within a month, a couple of years ago, two people told me about their undergrad English classes - one was one of the best tort lawyers in the state and the other had just been appointed dean of a college of business. Their minds went back over what must have been 30-40 years to the class they remembered most- their world lit.


Carl from Chicago said...

Thank you for the comments. Obviously when you make a "general" comment / post about liberal arts there are many exceptions to the "rule" because people are unique and capable of many great things.

The interesting point, for me at least, is the "assumed" relationship between depth of content and a liberal arts degree, as well as writing skills. I have excellent writing skills (for the business world, at least) and a deep knowledge of history and many other topics that would traditionally be something that you "learn" through a liberal arts degree. But how did I obtain these skills? Mostly independently of the classes I took, through my own studies. If you lined me up next to a traditional liberal arts degree holder and talked to both of us, our discussion and level of discourse would be indistinguishable.

When I was thinking of a career I didn't have any business contacts or any "edge" on the competition. I had to do all that I could to excel at school and work hard in order to gain credentials that would let me get my foot in the door. My business degree definitely helped with that, especially if I would have gotten a liberal arts degree, instead.

Of the head of a law school - liberal arts is traditionally the starting point for a law degree, capped off with 3 years of school (as I am certain you are aware). And for the business dean, I am sure he picked up an MBA or PHD somewhere along the way to gain those specific skills.

I do also think that the world today, and the hiring process, is much more "formalized" in terms of hiring for specific skills, and many promising people are "cut" before they even get a chance by these types of screening programs. I think that hiring was less programmatic in the past and as a result general skills were less of a handicap.

Once again I am primarily speaking of gaining entry INTO the workforce, not long term success. I don't think that long term success is correlated with either a liberal arts degree OR a more "technical" degree. It is probably tied to something else that is grist for another post.

Anonymous said...

Asked a VP at a company I worked for some years ago, why he'd hired me rather than someone with an MBA. This was a very large company, and we were working with small businesses to supply them pension plans and insurance. He said that it was simple, that the Lib Arts majors knew when 2 + 2 did NOT equal 4.