Thoughts on the last day of school
Higher education is much in the news these days. The New Yorker has an article about Stanford’s relationship with Silicon Valley. Frank Bruni worries about philosophy majors finding jobs, and Charles Morris worries that college is becoming a luxury item. In the latest Commonweal, Denis O’Brien reviews Andrew Delbanco’s latest book. (Delbanco’s book was on my to-read list before I read O’Brien’s review, and the review only made me want to read the book more.)
Part of our problem in talking about “college” is that it has become an umbrella term for a vast array of post-secondary education. A student studying information technology at a land grant Midwestern state university is in college, as is a student studying art history at a small liberal arts college in Iowa. Students enrolled in two-year associate degree programs to become physical therapy assistants are in college, as are students enrolled in four-year business degree programs at Catholic universities in the northeast. Colleges are public and private, residential and commuter, sectarian or non-sectarian, for-profit and not-for-profit. I think this diversity is a great asset, and it makes American higher education unique in the world. Yet we should be clear students who attend these various schools are not looking for the same thing in their “college experience.”
Of the four different educational scenarios I’ve just presented, my guess is that the most difficult one to justify is the student who chooses to study art history at a small liberal arts college. Indeed, if your reason for attending college is to get a “good job” afterwards, spending a significant chunk of your college education studying the Parthenon frieze or the competition for the doors of the Florentine baptistry or the shift from abstract expressionism to pop might seem like a waste of time and money. Given the high cost of college, people need good reasons for choosing a broad liberal arts education. (And here, when I say “broad liberal arts education,” I mean studying English literature or classics or biology or mathematics or history, subjects that are not direct training for a career.)
The best justification I’ve read for such a choice comes from Mark William Roche’s book Why Choose the Liberal Arts? (University of Notre Dame Press, 2010). Roche is a former dean of the College of Arts and Letters at the University of Notre Dame, and he is currently a professor of German and concurrent professor of philosophy there. The book won the 2011 Frederick W. Ness book award from the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU). The AACU gives the award annually to “the book that best illuminates the goals and practices of a contemporary liberal education.” (I should note that Roche is my teacher, mentor, and friend. I read a draft of the book before it was published, and I was his assistant for his sophomore seminar “Faith, Doubt, and Reason.” He is one of the finest teachers I’ve ever encountered.)
Roche makes three overlapping arguments for choosing to study the liberal arts in college. First, he argues for “its intrinsic value, or the distinction of learning for its own sake”; second, “the cultivation of those intellectual virtues that are requisite for success beyond the academy”; and third, “character formation and the development of a sense of vocation” (10). For readers interested in answering the question “what kind of job can you get with a philosophy major?” Roche’s second argument offers a compelling answer. If readers are interested in answering the question “why would you study philosophy?” Roche’s first argument provides a cogent defense of learning for the sake of learning. And everyone should be much more interested in the deep connection between what you learn and what kind of person you can become because of that learning. Here, Roche’s third argument is particularly important. (Delbanco has made similar arguments; Anthony Kronman, in his fine book Education’s End, also stresses this part of education.)
As befits a book that makes three arguments for the value of a liberal arts education, Roche’s argument blends the philosophical, the factual, and the personal. Roche marshals arguments from Plato and the Bible, from Kant and Hegel, from Max Weber and Felix Frankfurter to paint his picture of the intrinsic value of a liberal arts curriculum. He cites numerous studies showing that the sorts of skills that employers desire – excellence in oral and written communication, intellectual curiosity, ability to analyze complex problems – are exactly the sorts of virtues that a liberal arts curriculum cultivates. And as an alumnus of Williams College, the University of Tubingen, and Princeton University, and a teacher and scholar at the Ohio State University and the University of Notre Dame, Roche draws on his own experience finding his vocation through the study of liberal arts and helping his students find theirs.
There is far too much heat and not enough light in our discussions of higher education in America. There are real and pressing questions about college costs and affordability, about what students learn and how they spend their time in college, and about the right balance between faculty teaching and research. Yet if, in the name of efficiency and cost cutting, we lose sight of the intrinsic value of learning and how learning forms the character of students, we end up cheating our students of an opportunity to encounter goodness and beauty and truth and shape their lives accordingly. We also cheat them out of moments of grace.