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.
She 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.