Consumerism vs the liberal arts education

The other day I was reminded of the quaint concept of the "liberal arts education" when the shooting of Rep. Giffords in Arizona was blamed on the suspect's ownership of Mein Kampf.  Whatever the merits of that argument, or the question of whether the shooter had even had such an education, I wonder whether today's college students so much as know what a liberal education means.

When I was an undergrad in the late 80s, I got it, barely.  The professors explicitly told us.  They pushed back against students who regarded taking English courses as the educational equivalent of eating broccoli, and wanted to dive right into their major instead.  I get the impression that the last 20 years haven't been kind to the professors' arguments; as the rise in cost of a bachelor's degree has vastly outstripped inflation, students have focused on ROI.  That's a consumerist viewpoint, and as a result, universities have come to resemble trade schools more and more.  This has even trickled down to secondary education, in the form of the "no child left behind" act.  The objective is to produce qualified wage-earners rather than engaged and well-rounded citizens.

Well, consumerism is a self-perpetuating system that trains people to earn more money by making things so that they can spend more money buying the things other people made.  The whole cycle is predicated on the brief rush of pleasure of an acquisition.  But happiness isn't just increasing the number of pleasant moments in your life - unless you consider addiction a happy condition.  The pleasure of acquisition is myopic; happiness requires perspective.  The liberal arts education used to give students the tools to get that perspective, but consumerism wants the resources that went into that education.  (Start your major early!)  I'd even go so far as to say that people with real perspective weaken consumerism, because they're capable of choosing to earn less in order to have a more satisfying life. 

"Kids these days?"  No, that's not my point.  The saving grace in this situation is the current generation's charity work and community involvement.  The grades and extracurricular activities expected of college-bound high school students today astonish me.  If I had graduated from high school in 2010 instead of 1987, barely in the top 20% of my class and with only one theater production to show for all those evenings and weekends, I'd never have been accepted to the University of Michigan.  The exposure to the broader community and the chance to be altruistic goes a long way towards providing perspective.  The competitiveness of the college admissions process might just be a backhanded way of giving these young folks the tools they need to have a better life.


  1. This is why I'm always amazed when I meet someone who received a degree from an esteemed liberal arts college who doesn't know how to spell correctly, or doesn't know anything about the American Civil War, or a little bit of a foreign language, etcetera. I suppose there are poor students everywhere, but I don't understand how they obtain their degrees when they really don't seem to have learned anything at all.

  2. You have to crawl before you can walk. What we are realizing is that we aren't preparing all people to even acquire the basics in life. I think the priorities are straight. There will always be the educated elite who will be the ones who give back.

  3. Bud - I do have a thing about spelling. There's another CLEblogger who put it with devastating concision: 'I can't take your ideas seriously if you can't spell.' In principle, spelling is just about the last thing I should care about people mastering, but I can't help it.

    Donna - it would be an unhappy condition indeed to not qualify to earn any sort of wage at all. And I know there are plenty of people who graduate like that. (What was the Onion spoof? The "Americans with No Abilities Act"?) But I think for the mainstream students we've gone too far in the other direction. Have we given up trying to teach them about meaning in life, just so they can be upper middle class instead of lower middle class? I hope they get it, eventually, as I did; I just don't think the current system does much to help them.