The Privilege Of A Liberal Arts Education

From the title, it seemed as if the point of the op-ed was to distinguish the nature of education from the nature of employment, the latter being one of the two misguided characterizations of higher education. The other is a consumer purchase in order to rationalize the role of students by invoking the old saw, “the consumer is always right.” But no, that was not the point of “College Students: School Is Not Your Job” by a writing teacher at Southern Methodist University, Jonathan Malesic. Not at all.

College freshmen who just arrived on campus have heard, from parents and politicians alike, that college exists mainly for the sake of work. Colleges themselves tout their graduates’ employment rates, starting salaries and career networks as major selling points.

Students have gotten the message. An overwhelming majority of first-year students tell pollsters that getting a better job is a major reason for going to college. Across 25 years of teaching at five universities in three states, I have heard students consistently call school their “job.” Given the cost of attending a four-year college, it’s reasonable that they want assurance their degrees will lead to higher earnings.

If only parents and politicians offered such practical advice. More likely, they’ve learned from their peers that the burden of school debt can be soul crushing, and that the glory of studying majors that will ultimately offer no way to repay it, no job with which to occupy the hours between undergrad and graduate school with yet more debt, and no job at the end of the rainbow since there aren’t enough universities to hire yet another Ph,D, in grievance studies, and the sheepskin is otherwise good for nothing.

But regardless of whether students come upon this reality organically or because cynical mommy and daddy pushed junior to take a course of study that might contribute financially to their well being, the point remains that more students want well-paying jobs after college than a volunteer position as a doyenne at the Met.

College is a unique time in your life to discover just how much your mind can do. Capacities like an ear for poetry, a grasp of geometry or a keen moral imagination may not pay off financially (though you never know), but they are part of who you are. That makes them worth cultivating. Doing so requires a community of teachers and fellow learners. Above all, it requires time — time to allow your mind to branch out, grow and blossom.

College is indeed a unique time in a student’s life, and students should be exposed to broad array of an enlightened liberal arts education. Unfortunately, that was far more doable when the students filling the amphitheater seats came from families of means, the sort where a well-educated student could afford to indulge an unremunerative course of study for the sake of enjoying great poetry and literature, and afterward join daddy’s firm as an investment banker.

The 20th-century German philosopher Josef Pieper might have said that when students see college solely in terms of work, they deny their own humanity. He pointed out in his 1948 book, “Leisure: The Basis of Culture,” that the word “school” comes from the Greek “schole,” which means “leisure.”

Who was attending college in 1948, praytell?

Pieper borrowed his idea of leisure from Aristotle, who saw contemplation as the highest human activity and thus essential to happiness. “For we do business in order that we may have leisure,” Aristotle wrote, implying that leisure must therefore be a greater thing than work.

Who doesn’t love contemplation? I know I do. If it were up to me, I would contemplate all day long. Anybody want to pay me to do so? I didn’t think so.

Pieper’s question is just as urgent today for people pursuing higher education. For all but the most fortunate, earning power is an inescapable concern throughout a person’s life. But if it’s the only value that defines a life, then students don’t need a true education at all. They don’t need to construct a vision of the whole world and their place in it. They don’t need to address the larger questions that arise through open-ended discussion with professors and peers. They need just narrowly focused training.

Malesic isn’t wrong that one can take a course of study directed toward future gainful employment and still have room for students to “construct a vision of the whole world and their place in it.” But that’s no longer what colleges do. What happened to the required course in Western Civ or Classic Lit, the foundations of a liberal education that bound educated people together so that they understood the concepts and references shared among the degreed folks?

It’s not easy to make space for leisure within universities that look increasingly like corporations. It’s not easy to fit open-ended contemplation into a Monday-Wednesday-Friday schedule. Still, at their best, colleges and universities offer an alternative to the culture that values people solely for their labor.

I went to college and never had trouble finding “space for leisure,” often at the foolish expense of doing the required reading. But then, I was a poor kid from a poor family, and my daddy didn’t have an investment banking firm to set me up in as I pondered Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. If I didn’t come out of college with the ability to make something of myself, I would fall back on a life of very hungry contemplation since I would have nothing to eat.

For academics to bemoan the death of a leisurely education, perhaps they should consider their willingness to work for free, such that their students wouldn’t have to assumed massive debt to enjoy their future of leisure. But even then, they might do well to consider whether they should study renaissance painters in Art History or ponder a banana duct-taped to a wall if they hope to produce well-rounded, well-educated and adequately-leisured students.

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