Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Benefits of a Liberal Arts Education

Samford University Library
(Photo by Charles Kinnaird)
Last week on NPR's The Writer’s Almanac, Garrison Keillor read a poem by Faith Shearin, “Directions to Your College Dorm.” It is a wonderful poem that transported me back to those days of breaking away form home, meeting new friends, and learning of a wider, grander world. It also reminded me of how much I value having gone to a small liberal arts college where I could safely explore the wonders, joys, anxieties, and anticipations of a life moving out into the world. (You can read Shearin’s poem here.)

Thinking back on those days prompted me to repost an essay that I wrote a couple of years ago looking back on my liberal arts education which was published at AMERICAblog in May of 2015:

The Liberal Arts Pathway

It has been over 30 years since I received my first undergraduate degree at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. I have no regrets about the liberal arts foundation of my higher education. While the question “How can I get the best job?” has encouraged much of higher education to become glorified technical schools, to limit one’s education to employability for employability’s sake is to miss out on what education is supposed to be. What’s more, even in the context of employment, it limits ones opportunities down the road.

In my professional life, I have been involved in teaching, social services and healthcare. At each stage of my career path, my liberal arts education helped not only in opening some doors, but also in dealing with life once I walked through them. In today’s environment, with the speed of both technological and social change, one can expect to have to change jobs or to get some retraining for the workforce. A liberal arts education teaches you how to learn, allowing you to adapt to new challenges, requirements and settings.

I double majored in English and Religion & Philosophy, leading to all of the predictable jokes about my supposedly nonexistent job prospects. At the time, I wasn’t worried because I expected to either teach or enter the ministry. While those fields were good for me at first, I began to see that there were other professions that would suit me better. I eventually went back to get further training for my subsequent jobs, but my background in liberal arts was with me every step of the way.

Learning liberally


A view of Samford's Reid Chapel
(Photo by Charles Kinnaird)
I grew up in a small town, which led to my being a bit naïve when I entered college. I was surprised to find that my college professors were intent upon not only teaching me “things,” but also making me struggle with what those “things” meant. Whether it was history, science, literature, music, art or philosophy, everything was grounded in larger questions concerning what it means to be alive in the world. I was introduced to Shakespeare, who wrote more on the human condition than anyone else in the English language, and who more importantly dramatized the conflicts and struggles common to us all. I saw Huck Finn wrestle with the notions of race and slavery; I saw Atticus Finch strive for justice in the segregated South. I came to understand the intricate beauties of poetry, which I began to see as our own “open canon of scripture,” to which we continue to add with each passing year.

There was no condemnation for stepping out of the boundaries. There was just the exhilarating process of examining life, love, joy, sorrow, struggle and friendship. And when what you’re studying is life itself, your education naturally extends beyond the classroom. Some of my best memories from college are the debates and conversations with friends over lunch, about what Professor So-and-so said in class or a project that one of my friends was working on.

It was a wonderful and challenging milieu that fostered an appreciation for others and, in turn, a more progressive consideration of life itself — an outlook that was at once more hopeful than the provincial views I had grown up with and more aware of our past and present social inequities.

Living my education

That being the case, it still took most of my college career to get to the point of being able to think through the concepts I was being exposed to. Many are not developmentally ready to fully profit from their education in their late teens and early twenties. Education is a life-long struggle. For example, I had a conversation with a high school classmate whom I happened to meet years after graduation and who had become a successful banker. He mentioned our high school English teacher and noted that, “We really need what we learned in English class even more when we are in our thirties and forties — much more than we could realize at the time.”

A foundation in the liberal arts forces the student to grapple with the realities and vagaries of life, both before and after they receive their degree. This is especially important in the real world, which doesn’t curve your grades. In the ups and downs I have faced since graduating, I have always had something essential to fall back on; lessons that extended beyond employment and paychecks that could be re-applied to life as it happens.

So by all means, get all the training you can, but make sure you’re learning more than just what’s on the test. Life is more than your first job; educate yourself liberally, and you’ll be prepared to live accordingly.



Samford University Campus (courtesy of Wikipedia)

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