Liberal arts

I interviewed a PhD candidate this week who made an observation that students, especially those without the proper institutional and social support, should receive realistic messages and advice about their futures, adding that they’re not likely to thrive by employing English lit degrees.

“Hey!” I said. “Some of us are eating.”

This conversation coincided with a series of dreams I’ve been having around the theme of “graduation.” In my dream last night, I had allowed my flute playing to slip, sending me to the tail-end of the section. I had skipped classes, not completed homework and generally made a hash of the semester, on top of which I was graduating, with no prospects for gainful employment.

Exactly how I felt when I graduated from college with an English lit major—25 years ago this month.

Back then Hyman Datz, a beloved professor of 18th century literature, or maybe it was the late, great Bill Driscoll, told us fresh-faced liberal arts students that in the final reckoning, “Liberal arts majors hire business majors.” It’s a good line and I’ve used it myself, though I have no substantuating data. I also know that when I graduated summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa with Honors in English, I didn’t know shit.

Today, America’s colleges and universities do a much better job of preparing hapless liberal arts grads for the real world. Even tiny liberal arts colleges place a greater emphasis on experiential learning—internships, community service, study abroad, co-curricular activities—so as to bolster a French major’s chances of paying for that first apartment. But what about learning for its own sake?

I was raised in a solidly middle class family—my parents first-generation college graduates with liberal arts degrees—so I come to this discussion with a certain bias. The implication that an “English lit” degree is for the elite, for people with the leisure to dither around trying to find themselves holds water, but murky water at best, as if ideas and their study can only be apprehended and appreciated by the bourgeoisie. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Shakespeare was the Die Hard of the time. In the 19th century, La Traviata was “All My Children.” These were popular entertainments. The notion that music, art, culture, philosophy, history and language exist only for the edification of the privileged strikes me as limiting.

Learning for its own sake trains the mind. By following one's passions through the nooks and crannies of the library, we learn persistence and to form solid arguments. These intellectual skills have carried me through my entire life. Back in the day, however, they didn't make compelling reading on a resume.

Because I had to creatively navigate the real world with my liberal arts training, I developed survival skills I suspect a lot of business majors don’t have (my darling husband being a dramatic exception). Because liberal arts training involves developing research skills, writing skills and an openness to new ideas, I have been able to reinvent myself as the Information Age exploded around the typewriters and card catalogs of my youth. I have written and digested subjects as diverse as the worm genome, corporate reengineering and shrinkage ratios in log homes. I've interviewed Anthony Robbins, Chuck Norris, a former U.S. vice president, numerous members of the kniterati and hundreds of college students. See? We liberal arts types are eminently adaptable. If you want an employee you can throw at anything, hire an English major.

But is a degree of this type relevant for poor urban kids, whose families may not know how to navigate the arduous waters of America’s financial aid system and whose schools are too overwhelmed to help them? Will these students feel like fish out of water at an institution where many students have never had to work and don’t know what it means to count the change that falls from their pockets in the wash? As a consequence, should these young people choose practical, professional degrees? Vocational education?

My first college roommate was from Puerto Rico and had never made a bed in her life because the maid did it. My second roommate was from a farm in Iowa where her family didn’t have indoor plumbing until she was seven years old. She had never tasted Chinese food until she came to this private, liberal arts-oriented college and tried it. The transition to college hurt her mightily. She cried for six months, homesick for corn-fed beef and the wide, unbroken skies of her childhood.

Did she graduate? Yes. With degrees in creative writing and anthropology. Is she employed? Yes. For years with the Bureau of Land Management.

To finally bring this around, my interviewee made a fine point that college is presented to young people as a golden path to success. What does it feel like then to attempt college, and lacking any support, fail in the trying? Shouldn’t students be given a range of options? Apprenticeships? Vocational education? And college? And shouldn’t they all be validated societally as worthy choices?

True enough. But I gotta say, as an idealistic believer in the American dream and the possibilities afforded by clear thinking, if a kid wants to study poetry, good on him. 

Comments (3) -

June 8. 2007 01:43


Amen. I'm wid you, baby.

Susan |

June 8. 2007 10:44


Happy anniversary to us!  It was 25 years ago today that I completed my liberal arts degree with a Masters degree in International Studies...from the same institution as yourself  Smile

I agree with you.  I would not have changed a thing about my education.  

Small, liberal arts college in the urban upper Midwest.  Very Norwegian.  Very Lutheran.  And did wonders for forming my adult personality.  

Then right on to graduate school at a larger, more secular, urban liberal arts college at the foot of the Rockies.  Excellent studies.  And met some beautiful, talented people.  Smile

Yes, I never really had a career in what I studied.  Like foreign service.  Or intelligence agencies.  But, my education prepared me for a myriad of situations, projects, and people.  I've enjoyed the last 25 years.  I've done many things and had a handful of careers.  I have my education to thank for the basis of how I approach my life.

Happy anniversary, friend!

John |

June 9. 2007 21:04


I agree with the PHD candidate - work opportunities should be discussed thoroughly before embarking on liberal arts or similar degrees. Much money, anguish and heartache could be saved with a little forethought for some, and especially those without  experience and/or the social background to know differently.
Not to say that there is anything wrong with learning for its own sake,  which I am at present doing myself incidently - but I am at a very different place in the world right now and doing this 25 years ago would have served me no purpose at all.  

carol |

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