Adjusting the attitude toward liberal arts education


Alexander Collingsworth

I’ve learned a few things in college.

I’ve gotten pretty good at executing turns on my bicycle with no hands. I’m definitely better at taking shots. I was already pretty good at rolling doobies. My joints are pretty terrific. The best, really. Tremendous. Just beautiful.

I’m taking a drawing class right now that’s proving challenging. My first sketch was of a girl’s face in profile. The picture looked like some sort of demented bird. Hopefully I will get better at it.

Going into it I was not thrilled about having to fulfill the fine arts requirement. But I think this will be one of the most valuable classes I will have taken at UVM. I’m learning something completely new, something I didn’t think I would enjoy or be interested in.

I think that’s what college is for; it’s not just to learn theories and memorize facts, but to learn about yourself.

I think the sad truth about college is it teaches you how to be mediocre. I got pretty good grades last semester, but in at least in a couple of my classes I did the absolute bare minimum that I had to in order to pull off an A.

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That’s a piss poor mentality to have: how many beers can I drink Thursday night and still show up for class? Maybe I’m just speaking for myself here.

Our generation is pretty jaded when it comes to learning things. Increasingly, people treat education as a mere credential necessary to getting a job; get a good grade and get out.

I see this in the attitudes of my fellow students who could not look more grim and bored in class, whose teeth must be pulled in order to get them to answer a teacher’s question.

Why are they here, then? It’s because they have to be. Good luck getting a job even with a college degree.

It seems like more and more college students are turning to majors that funnel into a specific profession or career like nursing, engineering, communications or business, while the number of English, history and other humanities majors has dwindled. About 8 percent of graduates in 1970 majored in English. That was down to 3 percent in 2011, according to a “Planet Money” episode on NPR about the changing demographics of college majors over the past 40 years.

This makes sense, though. I think the Great Recession has left us particularly anxious about the future, and students prioritize getting a good job even if that means settling for a career they are not excited about.

About 20 percent of U.S. graduates in 2011 were business majors. Majoring in business seems like a good idea. You learn practical skills like accounting; you learn about finance and marketing; you are molded into a good candidate for the job market, complete with a flashy resume and networking know-how.

My business major roommate constantly reminds me that majoring in both English and history will leave me unemployed after I graduate.

But a Sept. 11, 2016 Wall Street Journal article titled “Good News for Liberal Arts Majors…” contends that majoring in English or in any of the liberal arts may actually pay off in the long run.

Although your pay may be lower after graduation compared to someone who majored in business with a concentration in finance, the pay gap shrinks over time. In the end, liberal arts majors may end up making more than their business major counterparts.

Furthermore, majoring in the liberal arts gives you a foundation of writing, research and critical thinking skills that allow you to pursue careers in many different fields or get advanced degrees.

But education should be about more than just making money. Shouldn’t it? Or is pursuing intellectual curiosity an exercise in self-indulgence?