Meanderings on the Liberal Arts Education and Humanities Major
~ by Anderson Tuggle
In reading recent studies about the smaller salaries and employment numbers of students with humanities/area studies majors and, in turn, colleges cutting back these very programs (or, as Stanley Fish calls it, “The Crisis of the Humanities”), I thought it appropriate to reflect upon my own choice of school and major. I attend a private liberal arts college and hope to major in history, though I fully plan on continuing to take classes across the disciplines (hence, the liberal arts education.) This approach always seemed obvious to me, as my passions lie in the subjective areas of literature and politics, and I would rather have a well-rounded education preparing me with skills for any career. Lucky for me, my parents strongly support the idea of “studying what you love,” so long as I perform well.
Yet, in a world of pre-professionalism and limited job opportunities, not to mention an ever-increasing cost of education, I find myself dogged by the questions of, “Should you follow what you love in education, no matter the cost?” and “How does one balance unlimited intellectual interests with financial restraints?” Thus, I find that a good number of my peers and elders look on the idea of a liberal arts education, most especially humanities majors, with confusion:
(Typical conversation that occurs over break)
Parent of Friend: Anderson, what do you think you’re going to major in?
Me: History most likely. But it’s a Bachelor of Arts degree, so you take classes from all subjects.
P (tepidly): Oh, how sweet…so what do you want to do with that? Become a historian?
M: Maybe. Perhaps work in Washington or go to graduate school or law school. I’m mostly doing what I love now.
P (relieved): Oh, so you want to do pre-law?
M: Not exactly…
Don’t get me wrong, though, I am not trying to sound intellectually elite to this confused parent. In fact, I often question whether their apprehension is wisdom grounded in reality compared to my youthful idealism. After all, a college education stands as an enormous investment and parents who pay for that (or students who pay for their own education, for that matter) should feel concern if studies like the Brian Sum one prove their investment might not pan out. Better to be safe with the pre-business, pre-med, pre-law, or pre-engineering degree, even if their child truly desires to study, say, philosophy or anthropology. Hell, some students at my own liberal arts school still try to identify themselves as pre-law or pre-med (even though these programs are technically non-existent), as if to say, “I’m here for the liberal arts education, but I’m not one of *those* students. Don’t worry, I have a plan for the future, I swear I’m not wasting anyone’s money.”
I, too, am not immune from this feeling, as I dream about the future and find internships that strike my interest. But take one look at my class schedule and I bet “career-orientated” is not the first phrase to come to mind (“Gender and Violence in the Middle Ages,” for example. Or my recent poetry class that involved me writing a 10-page essay on Nas and his connection to the history of African-American poetry.) I just find that these classes lift my soul much more so than the LSAT practice books that remind me of those ACT, SAT, and AP practice books I tossed after my college acceptance. I’m sure pre-professional programs might lift the souls of some, but my concern is for my peers who enter those programs out of necessity or compulsion, rather than desire.
Yet, I look at the legions of students struggling to find jobs, left in debt from college, living with their parents, etc. and I start to doubt whether “soul-lifting” stands as an important criterion in higher education. Should the liberal arts, and humanities in particular, stand as a niche market in education for those with the time and money to pursue them, forever delegated to a supporting role to pre-professionalism?
I would like to think not, but I’m no expert on these matters. So, I’ll share two quick anecdotes from my school experience this year that inspire me:
1.) At the beginning of the school year, one of our school’s most well-renowned history professors delivered a lecture entitled, “Pre-Law.” This peaked my fancy, so I went to the lecture hall, along with around 40 other students, many of whom had notebooks out and pens at the ready before the professor had even walked in. Most of the kids seemed anxious to receive the elixir of life (e.g. the prescription on how to get into a top-tier law school) from this supposedly great intellectual. So, the professor walks in, a few minutes late, and proceeds to spend the next 30 minutes detailing why none of us should even consider the idea of “pre-law,” most especially not in our first year. “Take anything and everything,” the professor joyously exclaimed, “you’re here for a liberal-arts education, one of the finest concepts in the world! If you love history, take a math course. If you love chemistry, take a classics course. You’re here to learn how to think for yourself and communicate effectively; savor every last minute of it.” Slowly, the notebooks shut and the shock faded. This professor’s love for history and education practically oozed out of him, showing us what the liberal arts looked like in human form. And, hey, this guy made having a PhD in history look pretty darn rewarding.
2.) Another source of inspiration came from a world far outside my tiny college: Spike Lee. A few months ago, the seminal filmmaker gave a lecture at our school. Spike made a point to thank his grandmother for saving her meager Social Security checks for years to help finance his education and, on top of that, supporting him to the fullest when he chose film as his discipline, a decision that would leave even the most lenient of parents questioning their investment. He spoke of doing what you loved, rather than trying to meet other’s expectations. Cliché, I know, but the words struck me as profound when I considered a prospective student I had just encountered named Justin. Justin was considering coming to my college and, when asked what he wanted to major in, he shrugged and said, “Pre-Law or Economics.” I responded that we didn’t really have a pre-law program, but economics was great. He shrugged again and then told me how he didn’t particularly enjoy it, but it’s what his parents asked of him. So, we switched topics and, later on, he mentioned that he was reading “The Canterbury Tales” for fun, which prompted me to ask why he didn’t consider history or English as a potential major. “Yeah, I’d like that,” he grimaced, “But my parents…ya know how it is. They just want me to succeed, I guess. ” I think Spike would have a thing or two to say about that.
I wish some of the parents (and students) who view the undergraduate degree as a stepping stone, a mere comma between adolescence and adulthood, could have heard the abovementioned lectures. It might not change their mind, but it could make it clear that, for many people, success comes from the heart, not the pocketbook. At least, in all my youthful naivety, that is what I would like to think. Or to steal one of my older sister’s favorite quotations from the Reverend Howard Thurman, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and do that because what the world needs are people who come alive.”
But, once again, I have my doubts on finding the balance between meeting our material needs with our intellectual wants. It’s a tough world and money is money is money. Maybe a job is for material needs and hobbies are for passions; to a lucky few, they can have a career that combines both. Regardless, I don’t really have a great call to arms or anything. I am merely taking the time to consider why I’m in college, what I’m doing here, and where I plan to go after. I don’t know…I still have three years left and I intend to savor every last bit of it.
Anyways, given that the readership of this blog seems to be people much older and wiser than me, I’m sure you all have thoughts on undergraduate education and how it is best utilized.
Last Minute Add: Just saw this Louis Menand piece in the New Yorker on higher education… “The most interesting finding is that students majoring in liberal-arts fields—sciences, social sciences, and arts and humanities—do better on the C.L.A.[Collegiate Learning Assessment], and show greater improvement, than students majoring in non-liberal-arts fields such as business, education and social work, communications, engineering and computer science, and health. There are a number of explanations. Liberal-arts students are more likely to take courses with substantial amounts of reading and writing; they are more likely to attend selective colleges, and institutional selectivity correlates positively with learning; and they are better prepared academically for college, which makes them more likely to improve. The students who score the lowest and improve the least are the business majors.
Sixty per cent of American college students are not liberal-arts majors, though. The No. 1 major in America is, in fact, business. Twenty-two per cent of bachelor’s degrees are awarded in that field. Ten per cent are awarded in education, seven per cent in the health professions. More than twice as many degrees are given out every year in parks, recreation, leisure, and fitness studies as in philosophy and religion. Since 1970, the more higher education has expanded, the more the liberal-arts sector has shrunk in proportion to the whole….As work becomes more high-tech, employers demand more people with specialized training. It also explains the explosion in professional master’s programs. There are now well over a hundred master’s degrees available, in fields from Avian Medicine to Web Design and Homeland Security. Close to fourteen times as many master’s degrees are given out every year as doctorates. When Barack Obama and Arne Duncan talk about how higher education is the key to the future of the American economy, this is the sector they have in mind. They are not talking about the liberal arts.”