Failing Liberal Arts

A few days ago in the Proctor Booth Room, I was sitting in front of a group of guys that were discussing reading they were doing for one of their classes. One of the students said something along the lines of “Yeah, and we have to read this story called Flowers for Algernon. I’ve never heard of it,” to which his fellow booth mates responded, “YOU HAVEN’T READ FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON? YOU FAIL LIBERAL ARTS! EVERYONE’S READ THAT!”

 And though they were clearly being facetious, I can’t help but be struck by this idea of “failing” liberal arts, especially considering the thought provoking article released by The Atlantic this week in which Scott Gerber describes how the very model of the Liberal Arts College is failing America.

 I am left then with several questions: What exactly is one to learn at a Liberal Arts College? Is it our duty to take samplings of courses in all the major departments so that we can be impressive at cocktail parties post-graduation? Or are we supposed to deeply specialize in one academic field while taking courses in other departments to make sure we picked the right field? Is it possible to fail yourself while at this place, to fail the very idea of what going to a school with the “liberal arts” moniker means?

 For what it’s worth, my answer to the last question is a resounding no. The Liberal Arts system is set up so that it is impossible to fail—as there is no exactly right way to tackle the liberal arts education there is also no wrong way to tackle it. Part of the experience of being at a Liberal Arts College is the journey, the awkward buzzing from department to department until something clicks. During my first year here, I absolutely without a doubt knew I wanted to be a Psychology major, so I front-loaded all of the necessary intro courses into my first few semesters without really branching out. Then, on a whim, I decided to take a Creative Writing course during my Sophomore fall, a course that, pardon the drama, changed everything.

 And certainly I haven’t loved every class that I’ve taken here (Archaeology, I’m lookin’ at you), but I kind of think that’s the whole point—we’re supposed to encounter classes that we don’t like so that when we find classes we do, we know absolutely without a doubt that we’ve found a field of study that nourishes us, that makes us want to get up in the morning and trek halfway across the campus in the snow for a lecture at 8:00 AM, that makes us proud to be here.

 Yes, I am going into the real world with a plethora of knowledge that might be impressive at cocktail parties and business lunches, but I refuse to believe that my education has been one of assembling a toolkit of parlor tricks—my liberal arts education has equipped me with an adventurous spirit, with arms open wide, ready to embrace whatever challenges might come.

 But enough from me—I want to hear what you all think. Is it possible to fail Liberal Arts? What does being at a Liberal Arts College mean for you? 

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4 thoughts on “Failing Liberal Arts

  1. Jon Stewart used “Flowers for Algernon” on the Daily Show earlier this week. Check it out and read the story. Understanding the reference Stewart made is more than a parlor trick; it is a basic tenet of a citizenship and self-awareness.

  2. I am someone who has dabbled in what seems like every department on campus. And while I think that I’ve gained new perspectives and grown as a result of challenging myself in subjects I’ve never taken before, I sometimes feel so scattered that I wish I had gone deeper into something. I guess I’m glad I did the “buzzing” around departments but at the same time I wish I had a little more guidance from the institution about a direction to take and a little more articulated idea of what I’m getting at through this liberal arts education and what I will be leaving here with.

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