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.