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Someday it will be 2037…

and Why Having a CC Liberal Arts Education Will Still Matter to Your Adult Child 

By Susan Ashley, dean of the college, dean of the faculty

What difference will a liberal arts education make to the class of 2012 a quarter of a century from now, and on the way there?

Graduation invites reflection on that question.  It signals an end and a beginning —the end of four years of relatively carefree exploration, and the beginning of the “real-life” responsibilities of job, house, and family. College, it is true, is an exceptional time. Graduates will tell you that it’s hard to replicate the freedom, the ready access to friends, the unstructured time, and the intellectual stimulation they enjoyed in college.  But in other ways, college isn’t just an interlude or a parenthesis. All colleges and universities claim to prepare students for what comes next.  Their graduates might leave college life behind, but they carry what they learn with them — in what they do, and in who they are. 

That continuity between college and post-college seems especially clear when students opt for professional degrees. According to various studies, most Americans believe that the point of college is to get a decent job, with a respectable income. U.S. Education Department statistics indicate that American undergraduates mainly major in business or in education or in other practical fields. After four years of specialized training, they expect to move directly into their pre-determined careers, and get on with life.  The current economic situation only reinforces the desire to use college to get an edge in the job market. 

That a college degree equals a good job is less sure when students major in fields such as English, history, or chemistry — the only ones available in liberal arts colleges such as CC.  A senior recently commented that she’s tired of being asked: What are your plans for next year?  What will you do with your degree?  Frequent questions, though not ones that discreet parents ask.  In fact, not many CC graduates choose to step immediately into a career.  They accept low paying work, or take a job, on spec, to see if they like it, thereby proving the public’s suspicions about the relative worthlessness of a liberal arts degree.  According to the skeptics, you’ve just invested in an education that produces vague or implausible results.

It’s easy to counter this view, because what makes a liberal arts degree so valuable is precisely its apparent impracticality.  Harsh economic realities put a premium on versatility, and a portfolio of skills arguably opens more avenues than training in a very narrow field does. Taking a longer view, in a context of constant and rapid change, it makes more sense to prepare for many things than for one prescribed career.  Twenty-five years after graduation, students with specialized degrees will probably find their jobs gone, and their skills outdated.  To keep up, they will need to retrain and to start again.  With a broader education and a skill set centered on critical thinking and writing, liberal arts graduates arguably adjust more easily to change.

CC alums provide evidence of this flexibility.  They find work on the strength of their ability to collect and assess information, to write, and to analyze problems, especially in groups — and they willingly change jobs until they find what suits them.  Take, for example, this ’89 grad.  He teaches grammar and composition courses to ESL students at the Community College of Aurora in Colorado. In 2009, he finished an MFA in creative writing.  He has two as yet unpublished novels and a nonfiction piece about an iconic Denver music hall of the 70s and 80s.

Another more recent grad, class of 2005, left CC wondering what came next.  She worked for a year for a real estate company in Denver then headed to New York, without a job.  To get by she learned to tend bar:  “I never would have imagined how many things were in a Long Island Iced Tea...they have some odd names in there too.  I mean, who wants to go up and order a Woo-Woo?”  She got an apartment, did two internships, enrolled in social work school and took a job at the Legal Aid Society in Brooklyn.  After getting her social work degree, she decided to go to law school at the University of Denver, and she graduated with honors yesterday.

A student in the class of 2008 majored in biology, with ambitions for medical school. Late in his senior year, he changed his mind about being a doctor, and went to California to work on the elections, then to Paris to study French, then back to work for a few months for a web design company.  The next year he finished the masters in humanities program at the University of Chicago, concentrating on philosophy.  He got better at thinking, he reports, but he found philosophy too arcane for the long haul. So, he decided to apply to law school, mainly to learn a different way of thinking.  In the meantime, through a CC friend and her mother, herself a CC alum, he unexpectedly landed a job in New York.  He is part of a team of a half dozen liberal arts grads in their 20s hired by the head of an investment firm to invent new ways of classifying businesses.  None has ever studied economics.

What landed him in an economic think tank in an office tower in downtown Manhattan had to do in part with the critical and analytical thinking skills he refined at CC and Chicago.  What also proved essential was his eclectic transcript. Liberal arts students typically take at least half their courses outside their majors — because they need to meet an all-college requirement or because of the professor, or the course title, or just on a whim. He was no exception.

Critics dismiss the helter-skelter quality of the choices available to liberal arts students.  If every class needs to count for something, how do all these different classes add up?  They don’t always, and that’s the benefit.  In a recent book, “The Medici Effect,” Frans Johansson examines what it takes to innovate.   “Creativity,” he says, “comes from combining concepts in an unusual fashion” and that occurs only at the intersections of disciplines and of cultures.  Those who specialize in a field acquire a limited set of ideas and associations, very useful for straight-line thinking but not for innovation, he argues.

In his view, taking all sorts of unrelated classes allows for the random connections essential for out of the box ideas.  According to Johansson, “the whole idea behind a broad education. . .is that it can help us break out of the associative boundaries that expertise builds.” (51) Exposure to different disciplines, then, opens a “white space” where insights from one discipline meet those from another, producing more complex and novel ideas. 

Twenty-five years from now, we might begin by looking for the effects of a CC education in what graduates do for a living.  Usually they end up with interesting work.  They report having an edge when it comes to writing, dispatching work quickly, and seeing things from different perspectives. It would likely be true that they’re enterprising and creative thinkers, because of the variety of what they learned at CC.  According to current thinking about the purpose of higher education (diplomas equal jobs) I need to supply some numbers and say no more. 

But work, as important as that is, defines only a part of people’s lives.  People also belong to communities.  According to the ancients, education existed to form citizens, and studying the liberal arts did that best. Martha Nussbaum, professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago, reminds us that the liberalis in the artes liberalis means freedom, specifically freedom from the bonds of habit, custom, and received opinion.  Following Socrates and the Roman Stoics, she argues that thinking freely depends on examining everything, beginning with your own beliefs.

She argues that: “Our democracy, like ancient Athens, is prone to hasty and sloppy reasoning and to the substitution of invective for real deliberation.”[i]  Democracy requires citizens capable of recognizing bombast, distortion, and cant.  Done right, liberal education gives students what modern citizens most need: skepticism and the habit of critical argument.

Just as important, learning to challenge their own beliefs and customs allows students to see beyond their locales and immediate groups.  Because they expose their own traditions and values to question, they can look critically and openly at those of others.  They recognize that there’s logic behind even the most alien opinions and actions. That perspective prepares them to participate in a multiethnic and multinational world — to be global citizens — in Nussbaum’s view.

Colleges like CC say that they promote such habits of mind. By shifting the focus from dispensing information to examining it, from answers to questions, classes enable critical argument.  In four years, students get a lot of practice collectively hammering out answers to complicated problems, whether in the lab, the field, or the classroom.  Ideally, they expose their own views to criticism, and work to grasp the logic of what others say. They should, then, develop the skills necessary for responsible involvement in their local and wider communities.

Of course, it’s hard to know whether graduates will practice critical argument as citizens.  But such habits of mind die hard, especially when contemporary society gives people such good reason to use those skills.

CC leaves another sort of mark, one beyond work and community involvement.  Horton Johnson, class of ‘49 explained it to me a few years ago.  Reflecting on his education, he emphasized what really mattered to him.  “The purpose of college is, after all,” he said, “to learn how to use your spare time.”  He majored in chemistry, went to medical school, and spent his career as a research pathologist.  But he always loved art, and as soon as he retired, he became a docent at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.  Standing in the new antiquities wing of the Metropolitan in front of a Greek vase decorated with a scene from the Iliad, he recites the passage which inspired the scene in Greek, words he memorized 60 years before at CC.  What he learned then adorns what he chooses to do now.

Looking 25 years into the future, a CC education stands in reserve, pieces of it available when needed.  In “Oh Happy Days,” the French playwright Samuel Beckett plants the heroine, Winnie, in a hole in a deserted landscape.  She looks out for her husband, Willie who is out of sight behind the mound.  He needs her help to avoid going head first into his hole and getting stuck there.  She distracts herself with objects from a large handbag in front of her, and occasionally she breaks into song to keep her spirits up. When she sinks up to her neck in the hole, Winnie loses the use of her hands and the comfort of objects.  She passes the time reflecting on her situation, and speaking to the silent Willie. At one point, she searches for a quotation which captures a fleeting thought.  “One loses ones classics,” she remarks.  Then she goes on: “Oh not all.  A part.  A part remains.  That is what I find so wonderful, a part remains, of one’s classics, to help one through the day.”   What settles in the back of the mind, can come in handy later.  The richer the stock, the more useful it is, in conversations with strangers, in day dreams, while waiting in line, or when making sense of the news.

What’s left of CC 25 years later?  There will be friends and memories.  And, I would hope, a book list, sufficiently ambitious to take a while to finish. Enough familiarity with different disciplines to keep asking: what if we looked at it this other way?  There should be the habit of self reflection, and the idea that it’s worth it to figure out: why do they think that, do that, value that?  Undoubtedly in 25 years graduates will play active roles in the community and in political life.

By that time, grads will enjoy a rich array of interests, some initiated or identified here. There will also be, I trust, a reserve of unanswered questions, ideas to mull over, scraps of conversation, random facts and theories which some event later in life, some challenge, or some conversation suddenly revives, indicating the abiding influence of a CC education.

The beginning which Commencement marks actually started four years ago and, if we did our business properly, it keeps on happening.



[i]. Ibid., 10.