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COLUMN: Angst And A&S

Published: Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Updated: Thursday, February 7, 2013 00:02

Do you slurp down Busch Lattes four nights a week before trekking down to a familiar windowless hovel in Cleveland Circle because you’ve reasoned that if enough of the last semester of your college career is forgotten to drunken nights, then the foreboding of graduation may too disappear? Is your June horizon all doom and gloom and dread because the prospects of gainful employment, independence, and all that good stuff are looking ever slimmer? Are you feeling sad and rueful because your liberal arts education appears to have no practical worth?

In response to those first two questions, I’ll say this: too bad, looks like you, along with me, are f—ed. As for that last question however, I think I might be able to offer some words, something constructive, a newish perspective on what it means to receive a liberal arts degree rather than one of those more lucrative-seeming CSOM degrees.

First and foremost, and this will seem obvious, but it must be reiterated, if you enrolled in A&S then you did not sign up for a vocational education. Instead you chose to work towards a bachelor’s degree in a field of study that made no explicit claim on training and qualifying you for a career outside the scope of its study. For instance, the only occupation that an economics major explicitly prepares you for is this: professional economist. You decided to come to a Jesuit institution that places much emphasis on its students engaging in a broad, interdisciplinary spectrum of scholastic pursuits. Whether or not you were cognizant of it at age 17 or 18, choosing A&S meant chartering a course to explore the scope of academia, to generally hone your sensibilities and intellect. If you enrolled in CSOM or CSON, you decided to study a vocation—you chose to prepare yourself for entrance into a specific, non-academic industry.

The economic climate that has pervaded our stay here at BC has been marred by a vaguely improving recession and heights in unemployment amongst bachelor’s degree holding graduates. Futures have come to look bleaker than they once may have. Vocational degrees and academic pursuits that groom students for commercial careers and industries have been heralded as wiser choices in this post-recession era. Note that the use of "wiser" here may be understood interchangeably with "safer"—which do not necessarily connote something negative. Culturally, a humanities degree seems to have lost its value. In fact, there now appears to be some movement across the U.S. to urge graduating high school students to consider more thoroughly the choice to enter into academia, or to pursue more vocational, more practical options. Not that that’s a bad thing—perhaps the liberal arts degree really is diluted, and is not for everyone.

But how about your liberal arts degree? What’s it worth? That’s best answered with a question: how often do you find yourself thinking something like: "I hate school. I just want to graduate so I can start making money. This fine arts core requirement is stupid and won’t help me in my chosen career field." Do you reflect afterwards on these statements? Do you dismiss them as certainties—things you know to be true about your experience of the world? If the latter is the case, then perhaps a liberal arts education wasn’t exactly "worth it" for you. To sternly and automatically dismiss components of your education, is to, at least in part, have missed "the point" of it all.

You may have heard something hackneyed about the purpose of a liberal arts education—something like: it teaches you how to think. While that isn’t untrue, it may be too narrow a message. It seems to me that a liberal arts education does more than simply teach you how to think—it teaches you how to think about what you think. Guiltily, I’m borrowing here from a commencement speech that David Foster Wallace made at Kenyon College in 2005. I can’t avoid it—the insight is too compelling (please type "This Is Water" into YouTube and listen for yourself). We tend to operate under what Wallace calls our "default setting," this stream of consciousness in which we understand our narrow, individual experience not only as the "correct" way of perceiving the world, but we also consider that individual experience to be at the absolute center of the universe.

Hopefully, what we’ll take away from a liberal arts education, and particularly a Jesuit influenced one, is a greater awareness of perspective—we’ll learn to adapt, adjust, and shift our thinking beyond the lazy constraints of that default setting. We’ll learn to examine the way that we immediately understand our surroundings, other people, etc. Why this education required us to learn things like French, to perform calculus, to study primary source texts from the Ming dynasty, or to interpret the convoluted meaning of a Jackson Pollock painting is not because these individual facts are imperative for proceeding forth in life, but because each offers a new and different perspective on interpreting, understanding, and expressing our human experience. What you have been learning is how to see the world from a position you otherwise may not have. You learn how to adjust and adapt your own thinking to the ever-changing world that we live in. This is the real merit of a liberal arts education, what will carry you through life in a successful, satisfying way—the ability to recognize worldviews external of your own, then to assess and either incorporate or dismiss them.

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