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Is She Ready? How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Liberal Arts

The first thing you need to know is that today is Erin’s last day of high school. Yup.  She graduates on Saturday. Yeah, I know. Where did the time go?

And it’s more than just a little weird.

She’s done pretty well. National Merit Finalist. Valedictorian. Art awards. Plays and musicals. She didn’t hurt herself running cross country, learned how to drive a manual transmission without serious structural damage to the vehicle, and rarely rolls her eyes when her parents ask her to do things. So fairly typical teenager.

erin50She learned the game of school early and has played it pretty well the last 13 years. Homework. Tests. Forms. Practices. Doing whatever teachers and coaches have asked. She’s put in her time. And, yes, dad and mom are pretty proud.

But ya gotta ask yourself:

Is she really ready?

Kansas – and other states too, I’m sure – has focused on creating “college and career ready” graduates. Graduates who have the skills needed to be “successful” in the real world. So kids are asked to create pathways and career clusters, to pick a future profession and begin training for that profession as early as middle school.

Nothing wrong with the concept. Kids should be ready for whatever comes after high school. It’s how we define “whatever” and how we prepare kids for it that sometimes becomes a problem. We can focus so much on job skills and career prep that we lose sight of the liberal arts.

The liberal arts are those subjects or skills that in classical antiquity were considered essential for a citizen to know in order to take an active part in civic life. This included participating in public debate, defending oneself in court, serving on juries, and in ancient Greece, military service. Later music, philosophy, languages, literature, math, and social sciences were added to the mix. The goal of all of this was to produce “a virtuous, knowledgeable, and articulate person.” Subjects and skills that are just as important to the class of 2014 as they were to Athenian teenagers.

But in the last few years, I’ve gotten the sense that the liberal arts and traditional four-year colleges are seen as a quaint concept, appropriate for the 1950s but hardly worth a look in 2014. The sense that having kids study the arts, history, music, philosophy, literature isn’t a productive use of their time.

So is Erin ready? I’m not sure. According to the game of school and job skills and standardized tests and career clusters? Yeah, probably.

Ready to be a part of a democratic society? To be a virtuous, knowledgeable, and articulate person active in civic life? Able to understand those different from her? Able to empathize with and help others? To be creative? To solve complex problems? To contribute to the common good? Maybe not yet.

When Erin tells people she’s planning to attend St. Olaf College – a seriously focused liberal arts college in Minnesota – she often gets a polite stare and a comment about how cold it’s going to be. When they find out she’s thinking about a visual arts / creative writing major, the first thing she hears is something along the lines of “but what are you going to be able to do with that?”


Our hope is that she’s not going to Minnesota to get job training. Our hope is that she’s going to Minnesota to get life training. No. She may not ever achieve her dream job of being a Disney illustrator (Good luck honey! I know you can do it!) but she will be a critical thinker, a creative problem solver, someone able to embrace and adapt to the challenges of a constantly changing world.

Post high school should be more than just job skills. And Laura Skandera Trombley, president of Pitzer College, knows it.

In a recent speech, Trombley articulated the power of a liberal arts education and provides the reason why good social studies teachers are so important:

We seem to be living in a moment when self-evident truths need to be defended. One of those truths is that a liberal arts education not only creates “skill sets”; it creates wisdom and insight, spurs creativity and innovation, and inspires students to think in ways that transform the world. Imagine the iPad without that calligraphy course Steve Jobs snuck into at Reed or Disney Hall if Frank Gehry’s mother had never taken him to a concert (he had already struck out as a radio announcer, chemical engineer and truck driver); or Elon Musk’s Tesla if he hadn’t earned his degree in physics at the University of Pennsylvania.

The liberal arts are healthy for a democratic society and absolutely necessary if we want our society to flourish. The body politic, the communities in which we live and work, are not so very different from the human body: in order to survive we need to be fed by variety, by what’s organic and pure — fruits and vegetables, perhaps a nice glass of pinot — not by what’s fast and easy.

But aren’t the liberal arts a luxury, pundits ask. Do we really want our young people studying philosophy, or Latin, or literature? I always want to direct those queries to George Soros, Carl Icahn, Carly Fiorina, Studs Terkel, Angela Davis, Stephen Breyer, Pope John Paul II, Albert Schweitzer and the 14th Dalai Lama — philosophy students all. If only they had done a pre-vocational major, maybe they could have made something of themselves.

The current wave of hostility to a liberal arts education has surfaced at the same moment when states are being asked to adopt the Common Core State Standards for K-through-12 students. The Common Core is, in part, a reaction against education that’s simplistic, rote, or one-dimensional. Students are asked to analyze data that appears inconsistent, to read for irony, to explore the unknown. Whether or not these standards are a good or bad idea remains to be seen, but they implicitly acknowledge the value of the liberal arts.

This is where you come in.

Social studies. History. Geography. Civics. All part of the liberal arts tradition. The Common Core, the NCSS national standards, and the Kansas History / Government standards are all asking us to focus on preparing our kids to be virtuous, knowledgeable, and articulate citizens. Not just job seekers. But people who are also able to ask questions, look at evidence, solve problems, develop creative solutions and work for the general welfare.

Your job is absolutely crucial. And I know the end of the year is probably not the best time for a pep talk. But what you do truly is vital. Embrace the liberal arts.

It’s what you were meant to do.

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. Barb #

    Oh so true! It is essential to prepare students for life. Liberal arts opens both the heart and mind to life beyond self.

    May 15, 2014
    • glennw #

      And too many schools are moving away from it!


      May 15, 2014
  2. Melissa Barnes #

    St. Olaf class of 1980 here. Congratulations Erin! I hope you enjoy your years at Stolaf as much as I did. I hope you get as much out of your college experience as I did. The world has change a lot in 35 years but some things font change much. No matter what careers you have you will need to know how to learn. You will need to know how to think about things. That is what you get from an intense liberal arts education.

    Being that St. Olaf is in a cold place, on a hill, on the edge of a small town, you will have a lot of time to study and to hang around with your friends. Hopefully you will have the chance to make life long friends like I have. I saw this piece shared on the Facebook feed from two of my St. Olaf friends from back in the day. One is a minister and one is a college professor.

    My major was Utopias, Cooperation and Third World Development (political and social philosophy and comparative economic systems) and History. I had an interesting career at an insurance company because I knew how to think about things and figure them out.

    And BTW, don’t set aside that dream of being a Disney animator. My friend Kris Heller, class of 81, was a Disney main character animator for over 10 years. She drew Alladin, the Hunchback, and Cpt John Standish among others.

    No one can take a good education away from you.

    May 16, 2014
    • glennw #


      Thanks so much for the comment. I passed it along to Erin – who loved it! Her eyes just lit up when she read about Kris Heller and her Disney job.

      She’s very excited about St Olaf and we’re excited for her!


      May 16, 2014
  3. Dave Raines #

    My daughter is a sophomore at St. Olaf. She’s a theatre major — tech. She loves St. Olaf. She’s just finished her final paper for Great Conversation, a 2-year reading course. She now knows much more than I do about the humanities… and I have an MA in English and a Masters of Divinity. Really, I’m mostly just happy that she’s engaged and passionate about school.

    May 17, 2014
    • glennw #


      Thanks for the comment! Erin is excited about hanging with other kids interested in learning. We’re excited cause she’s excited. The Great Conversation makes sense . . . but daunting. She’s not sure if she’ll jump into that right away.


      May 19, 2014
  4. I am a rising senior at St. Olaf and really appreciate how well you articulated the benefits of liberal arts. I could not agree more. As I am nearing the end of my journey at St. Olaf I have been reminiscing on the person I was when I began there three years ago and the person that I am now. The difference is astounding! St. Olaf has completely changed my life in so many more ways than the knowledge it has given me and it is almost impossible to explain that to people who still look at me funny when I tell them that I’m a dance major. I am excited for Erin to begin her journey at St. Olaf because it is a really special place! Please welcome her to the family for me from a fellow Ole! Um ya ya!

    May 26, 2014
    • glennw #

      Thanks for the encouraging words! I passed them on to Erin – she’s pumped about her upcoming experience.


      May 30, 2014

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. What’s our job? | History Tech
  2. The humanities are “useless.” (Unless you want a job. Or to change the world.). | History Tech
  3. Thursday Throwback: The humanities are “useless.” (Unless you want a job. Or to change the world.) | History Tech

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