Keywords: The Liberal Arts

Darryl Campbell presents the question plaguing many recent college graduates: what’s the point of a liberal arts education?

It’s Friday morning, and I’m standing in front of my discussion section, trying very hard to pretend like I belong here. Invariably, just before I’m supposed to start, my fight-or-flight response kicks in. I fixate on absurdly irrelevant things. I don’t think about how to get the students talking to each other and not just to me or how to fit the day’s topic into the theme of the course. Instead, I worry whether my shirt and tie clash, or whether I have time to go to the bathroom again before I start. Most of all, I wonder what sort of sadist/university administrator decided that young adults (many of them still teenagers) could be intellectually active on Friday mornings.

Once the words on my lesson plan have dissolved and recombined into unintelligible constellations of letters as if they were made not of twelve-point Garamond but of alphabet soup, I realize that I can’t put it off any longer. It takes a supreme effort of will — the kind required to confront a roommate about his dishwashing habits or to ask someone out on a date — but I manage to force my mouth to move: “Good morning, everyone.” By then, I’m on autopilot, and for one more week, I’ve spared myself the humiliation of bolting out the door in front of my students, but only just.

Illustration by Priya Rajdev.

Illustration by Priya Rajdev.

No matter how many times I go through this weekly struggle, it still takes me the same amount of effort to get through each week’s lesson. It’s not that I hate teaching, that I’m cavalier about my job, or even that I’m bad at it: I won an award for teaching last year, which is lying in a desk drawer somewhere because I don’t feel right showing it off to anyone, least of all myself. Nor are my students the problem. They are almost always motivated, eager, and deserving of the reputation that they deserve as Notre Dame students (and even when they’re not, even Domers have bad days).

Still, I spend a lot of off-the-job time worrying about exactly what it is I’m put in front of these kids to do. Obviously, I have to teach them about whatever the course topic is. But come the end of the semester, what are they going to take away? Have I failed as a teacher if they don’t remember the significance of the Carolingian Renaissance or can’t rattle off the names and regnal dates of Inca rulers? And if not, then what good was it to teach these things to them?

The boilerplate answer is that my efforts, combined with those of my humanistic colleagues, are supposed impart to my students critical thinking skills, factual knowledge, aesthetic sensibilities, and to generally create a “complete” person. Unlike the sciences, humanities teachers don’t teach foundational skills (reading, writing), but rather “ways of thinking.” That is, my objective as a history teacher is to try and inspire my students to think, read, and write historical sources and historical analysis like I do, or at least like I am supposed to do. Although we’re not trying to make our students into carbon copies of Ayn Rands or Harold Blooms or what have you, we are at least trying to make them see how these people saw their field and their world.

By doing all this, I’m supposed to help them along their way to becoming part of “the fellowship of educated men and women,” to borrow a phrase from one of the speakers at my own commencement, just by teaching them, say, the history of Western Civilization.

If that’s not enough, I can tell myself that I’m at least helping my students on the path to material success. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 30 percent of the adult American population holds a bachelor’s degree or higher. Yet that elite 30 percent earns, on average, at least twice as much as those with a high school diploma, and those with advanced degrees, four times as much. Put another way, a bachelor’s degree will earn you about $2 million over the course of a lifetime, which, you might tell whoever pays your tuition, is not a bad return on investment. The Institute for Higher Education Policy, meanwhile, reports that college graduates enjoy higher levels of saving, increased personal and professional mobility, an improved quality of life, better consumer decision making, and more leisure time.

I have a problem with both of these lines of reasoning. First of all, most people would (and should) balk at the idea of reducing four years’ worth of education into mere statistics and skills-building or a cost/benefit analysis. I do, too; a lot more goes on than you can quantify or qualify. But I also can’t believe that all those lectures, readings, and discussions always and necessarily turn empty-headed freshmen into erudite graduates.

Never mind those who buy into conspiracy theories, get their “facts” from political partisans, or know more about celebrity gossip than world geography – those targets are far too easy, and are commented upon far too often. Consider instead that nearly half of all American college graduates — 42 percent, according to the National Endowment for the Arts — never read another book in their lifetime. That bears repeating: nearly half of those people who, upon receiving their bachelor’s degree, supposedly entered the company of educated men and women will knowingly and willfully shut themselves off from the single best (albeit, most demanding of thought and effort) source of information, entertainment, and intellectual expansion.

Thoughts like these are part of the reason why I stay awake some nights wondering exactly what the value of my job is, and why some days getting in front of a class feels as futile and self-defeating as trying to fill a shot glass with a fire hose.

That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy what I do, or that I don’t think my students enjoy my classes (at least, according to their course evaluations). But I do find it disturbing that my entire profession can’t even define what it does. This is not a problem that doctors, janitors, or IT people have.

We teachers, for the most part, can only impart knowledge. Even the most advanced college-level classes, whether in the sciences or the humanities, teach you facts, theories, arguments, “ways of thinking,” and so on. It’s all fairly brute-force, but the advantage is that it’s as measurable as a utilities meter. Whether or not the student pays attention, the teacher has proof that he or she did in fact teach this subject on this specific day and had his or her students read this text or perform this experiment on that day.

Wisdom, on the other hand, is something wholly internal and personal, something that can’t be measured in test results, dollars, leisure time, or quite possibly by any rubric at all. It might happen after spending years in a safe and moderated classroom environment studying everything from history to physics to music, or it might come from just reading philosophy for eight hours a day. When it comes down to it, all we can do as teachers is place students in contact with so many products of the human experience that they are as likely as not to find some small thing that makes them think, and that makes them wiser for it.

But through lack of interest or ability or any number of other factors, not everyone is going to become wiser — to “get it,” in other words. Before the altar of wisdom, the teacher is completely powerless and the student is completely accountable. And it’s the reason why we humanities teachers can’t exactly explain what we do to anyone, even ourselves.

If that’s the case, and I exist solely as a conduit of information that may or may not help my students grow and mature, then maybe I shouldn’t be so anxious about what I do. At the very least, it would save me from having weekly bouts with sleeplessness and anxiety.

Of course, it might also be the case that the liberal arts are simply designed to provoke a deep-seated sense of restlessness and world-weariness in its students. If so, I can safely say that I’ve taken that lesson to heart. This might be a form of wisdom, too.

Darryl Campbell is the managing editor at The Bygone Bureau. He once got called an "elitist young author" by John Stossel, which he considers one of his top-ten lifetime accomplishments so far. Others include writing for The Christian Science Monitor and the Chronicle of Higher Education, paying off his car loan a year early, and getting a Twitter account. Send him an email.