Monday, August 15, 2005

Education or Vocation? Class Matters in the Liberal Arts

Today I was reminded how much I value the liberal arts (aka a liberal education). I volunteered to help a colleague of mine who runs an outdoor education program. He asked me to evaluate how well his students explained basic outdoor skills: how to pack a backpack, how to light a camp stove, how to handle toilet trips, etc. I was so impressed with the students that he has attracted to this program. He has equal numbers of female and male instructors, all of which have put in many hours in the back country and learning safety.

Logic--The Liberal Art

What really impressed me about these students was how confident and competent they seemed. They instilled in me confidence as well; if I had to put my safety in their hands, I would not flinch.

This program is one of the many amazing features of a liberal arts college campus. In addition to their course load and other co-curricular activities, these students volunteer to lead expeditions in the wild, teach other students how to kayak, climb, and hike. They go on trips to the Shenandoah valley, to Lake George, and the barrier islands off the Virgina coast.

My colleague's program emphasizes leadership and moral character. He teaches these students how to depend on each other, how to ask for help (you wouldn't believe how difficult that is), how to respect the wild, and how to be safe. These are all goals that many academics shoot for as well. And yet, the actual experience of steering a group safely through rain, lightning and hence poor visibility at dusk, often does far more to build our students' confidence and leadership than teaching them Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics, Book II. (Not that I would throw out the Aristotle, mind you!)

I have one regret--and it isn't minor--about the liberal arts: the upper-classes (or perhaps we are more comfortable saying upper-middle classes?) in our country are those most likely to take advantage of this. I have discovered this time and time again, but most recently while I have been encouraging a local high school student to apply to a liberal arts college like Bryn Mawr or Haverford. She is an excellent student, very precocious and eager to learn everything. She has excellent grades, board scores and an impressive resume full of service, band, and school leadership. She is, to my mind, a shoo-in for these sorts of schools.

When I first recommended applying to a liberal arts college, she was hesitant. First of all, she doesn't have any money (she is one of five children and both parents are working class). I told her that a well-endowed liberal arts college may offer her a much better scholarship than a state school and she won't have to pay it back. She then worried that she wouldn't be able to get into graduate school. I assured her that she would indeed be well poised for graduate studies coming from a prestigious liberal arts college. Students work closely with faculty at liberal arts collges and may even get to publish with a faculty member and/or participate in a research conference

She seemed excited by the idea and talked to a former Bryn Mawr student (who now reads applications for the admissions committee). She was thrilled by this meeting and went home to tell her Dad. Her Dad expressed fears that she would not leave college with a skill that was likely to get her a good paying job. That is when it really hit me that we have a class barrier in place that prevents "working class" parents from (a) knowing the incredible benefits of a liberal arts degree and (b) makes them worried about the skills-training that is or is not involved with the liberal arts.

I think if we are going to be honest about another key benefits of a liberal arts education, we have to acknowledge the "social capital" element. At a liberal arts college you will mingle with the rich and mighty. And, having these folks as your friends, alumni, classmates, or fellow Greeks will help you get a job ("hey, my Dad knows someone at IBM who is hiring" or "an X college alumni is the CEO of Morgan Stanley").

However, you need savvy parents or high school teachers to clue you into this benefit of the liberal arts.

You also need to trust that education is a worthy endeavor. I think the best way to think of education in relation to vocation is through the famous saying: "you give a hungry man a fish (vocation), you've fed him for the day. You teach a hungry man how to fish (education), you've fed him for a lifetime."