WHY CHOOSE THE LIBERAL ARTS?

Two weeks from today I will be manning a table at Wheaton College’s annual Academic Fair.  The doors to the gymnasium will open at 11:30 and a flood of new students and their parents will pour in.  They’ll roam from table to table, nervously introducing themselves and asking questions about the various academic majors and programs that the college has to offer.  For my colleagues and I, it’s a little like sweeps week on network television.  We do our best to make the history major sound glamorous, exciting, and life-transforming.  We present ourselves as brilliant (but humble), devout, charismatic, and endlessly entertaining.  We also shamelessly give away prizes.  Most popular are the history action figures: Benjamin Franklin, Alexander the Great, and (my favorite) Marine Antoinette, complete with severable head and a basket to catch it in.

Such premeditated distraction works, up to a point, but eventually the conversations take a serious turn.  The transformation usually begins with a nudge in the ribs from the nearest parent, or perhaps an urgently whispered “Ask him,” at which point the eighteen-year old across the table will clear her throat and politely inquire, “What can you do with a history degree?”

The answer, of course, is pretty much anything.  For many of my years at the University of Washington, I served  as the director of undergraduate studies for the Department of History.  One of the things that I did in that capacity was to administer a survey each year to our graduating majors (usually 200 or more), and one of the questions that I always asked our graduates involved their immediate and long-term career plans.  Their answers were instructive.

In any given year, typically a quarter to a third of our graduating seniors intended to become history teachers themselves, and a handful more hoped to enter closely related fields such as museum studies, archive management, and historical preservation.  But the large majority were headed down wholly different paths: in banking, financial planning, and insurance; in library science and computer science; in the national park service or the foreign service; in film production, law enforcement, and public affairs; in medicine, the ministry, or the military; in politics or the Peace Corps.  Others planned careers as journalists, attorneys, fire fighters, chefs, pilots, social workers, urban planners, and labor organizers.  I always thought that this was exactly as it should be.  History doesn’t provide technical preparation for a particular job, but rather broad thinking skills applicable to a myriad of jobs.

I typically share these findings with the students and parents at the Wheaton College Academic Fair, and I conclude by expressing my view that the study of history is far more than a gateway to a specific occupation; it is a stepping stone to lifelong learning.  As eloquent as that sounds, I don’t think it convinces many of my listeners.  The parents seem especially skeptical, a pattern that may have something to do with who is actually writing the tuition checks.  I totally get it.  College is expensive at best, and a private college like Wheaton requires enormous financial commitment and sacrifice.  Of course they want to believe that their money will be well spent before they fork over the cash.

RocheWhich is why I have prepared for this year’s Academic Fair by reading Why Choose the Liberal Arts?, by Mark William Roche.  Roche is an English professor by training, but when this book came out in 2010, he had just finished a lengthy stint as Dean of the College of Arts and Letters at the University of Notre Dame.  I’ll be carrying crib notes from the book with me two weeks from now, I can assure you.  Roche offers a slew of statistics attesting to the economic viability of liberal arts degrees.  He cites numerous surveys of major employers who rank the ability to think critically and write and speak effectively as more important than technical expertise.  He quotes CEO after CEO in praise of the humanities, and reveals that students who major in the humanities (including history) have a higher acceptance rate into medical school than those in a more traditional “pre-med” discipline.

Yes, I’ll share some of these facts with my anxious listeners, but I wish that I wouldn’t have to.  This sort of pragmatic argument perpetuates an impoverished understanding of education that Christians need to be combating, not affirming.  At its richest, education is much more than vocational training.  Roche agrees.  He emphasizes the pragmatic benefits of the liberal arts because he is a realist, and he recognizes that we live in a culture that equates education with learning how to make a living rather than learning how to live.  (A recent survey of college freshmen ranks “being very well off financially” as their highest priority.)  Roche’s personal sense of calling is quite different, however.  Speaking as an educator to educators, he concludes Why Choose the Liberal Arts? with this stirring declaration:

 Our greatest challenge is not to help our students find a career that satisfies their specialized intellectual interests and capacities or their material needs and desires but to help them find a higher calling that allows them to gain meaning and to be both at home in the world as it is and active in the wider world as it should be, so that learning becomes service to wisdom and justice.

I totally get the “what can I do with a history degree” question.  It needs to be asked.  But I do wish that at least one time a parent would nudge her son or whisper in his ear, and the nervous eighteen-year old would clear his throat and ask, “How will studying history change who I am?”

That’s a conversation I can get excited about.

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