A wise man’s remarks upon leaving Union


By Thomas G. McFadden

I believe that every Union student has a moral obligation to be intelligent.

What’s the point of being in college at all? You arrive, you study and play, and you leave. What is supposed to be the difference for you, other than that you are four years older and deeper in debt? You may not owe your soul to the company store, but you will owe a lot of it to somebody. Or, to put it another way:  after you walk across the Roger Hull Plaza and look in your envelope, what do you expect to find? A credential of some kind? A one-way ticket into the labor market, not transferrable? A liberal education? But what would that look like?

Let’s say, hypothetically, that along with the credential you get a tattoo on your arm (or wherever) that says “Union College.” You would thus be branded as a kind of “product.” Now,  as with any branded product, what can someone reasonably expect of you, of your skills, capabilities, knowledge, habits, dispositions and general capacity for life and work as a result of wearing this brand- that is, simply in virtue of being a product of Union? By the way, being a “product” does not entail being a “finished product.” You may still be a work in progress, or a developing product that has a long way to go. Your college years might conceivably be only the addition of a few enhancements designed to help you along.

The usual answer to this question is that at least one very important difference, perhaps even the primary difference, is that you will have become “liberally educated,” or will have acquired a “liberal education.” Or, perhaps, as a few still say, that you are the finished product of a liberal education.

Now, this cannot possibly be right, no matter what you think a “liberal education” might be. Whether it’s about cultivation of the mind, or of learning to live the life of the mind, or becoming what used to be called a “cultured” person, or of simply knowing a bunch of big ideas, this cannot possibly be right.

If it were right, then every year or so something on the order of a million students would spring forth upon a breathlessly awaiting world being liberally educated, or being in the state of having a liberal education. This is so obviously false that it scarcely merits discussion. No, this is not the difference that will characterize you between the time you enter the black box and four years later, when some commencement speaker will tell you that you have acquired a liberal education and that you should now go forth and do something useful with it. What could possibly justify the enormous expense of spending 4 (or more) years in a liberal arts college, let alone any other kind of institution of higher education?  How about:

• Keeping you out of the labor market for another four years after high school:

Every year, about three million students graduate from high school (in the United States). About two-thirds of them go on to higher education of some kind and 1.5 million of those actually receive a bachelor’s degree or the equivalent. It is perhaps no exaggeration to say that college postpones the entry of several million workers into the job market until they attain their early twenties. But college also functions as a significant filter into the labor market after it has been completed. For almost any kind of job beyond the most mundane manual labor, a bachelor’s degree is a sine qua non for gainful employment, even if—perhaps especially if—the nature of the college degree has nothing much to do with the content of the job.

• Enabling you to get a well-paying job after you graduate—or at least get on the track to one:

It is well-known that a beginning salary, and subsequent comparative wage increments, are directly related to educational attainment—and not just in the professions. If this were not true, then how could anyone possibly justify the enormous investment that a private, liberal arts college education now costs? You might as well invest your money in junk bonds or subprime mortgages. In many respects, the most important difference you should expect between your entry into the black box and your exit four years later is this substantial enhancement of your earning power and your potential for being able to live a comfortable life. The life of the mind may have its attractions, but this isn’t one of them.

• Bringing you into the surrounding social and cultural norms, or at least making you aware of what they are:

Learning to play nice is a valuable skill; indeed, without it the rest of what you learn may not be of much use to you at all—and certainly of little use to anyone else. The transition to college is frequently the very first experience any of you will have in living with, and cooperating with, people of the same age outside of your circle of family and childhood friends, people who may be quite different in many other ways. It is almost certainly the very first time any of you will be compelled by circumstances and social pressures to reflect seriously on how this is all supposed to work. We learn, or hope to learn, what true freedom is, and what it is not.

So, getting a (good) job and learning to play well with others, as well as being a pawn in the overall management of the labor market:  is this all there is? Is the claim that college is, for many, somehow primarily about a liberal education just a cruel hoax—a snare and delusion? Not at all.  What is true, is that college has something important to do with becoming liberally educated, although not exactly what we are often led to believe. The obvious fact that one could become liberally educated without ever having set foot on a college campus should tell us that while college and a liberal education are as a matter-of-fact frequently connected, they are not necessarily so.

It has been said that the most important question one can ask about a liberal arts college is what sort of person it produces. What sort of man or woman walks out its doors? This is a much broader question than the question of what constitutes a liberal education, although it is also often said that liberal studies are those that are pursued for their own sake and not for any subsequent utility. Most definitely, some would say, a liberal education is not vocational or career training. I would argue, on the other hand, that if it isn’t something like that, broadly construed, then it isn’t anything at all. Another  consequence of this distinction between career training and liberal education is that liberal education is often considered largely the concern of general education at the lower division— something beyond and more than liberal education is the proper purview of the major or concentration. Illiberal education, perhaps?

The expression “liberal education” carries with it the suggestion that a liberal education is something you acquire, possess or have inflicted upon you as something vaguely medicinal. You leave college, then, cured of ignorance, the finished product of a liberal education, or at all events, the partial product of a liberal education; you have acquired some tangible thing that you can point to with pride (or embarrassment) and say “that’s my liberal education.” The closest model to this idea is the acquisition of a bunch of facts, or principles, or information generally that you can now take forward on the journey of life in some useful way. But given that studies have shown that, for instance, the forget-time for much of a content-rich lecture is as short as 15 minutes, this may not be a realistic expectation.

The plain fact is, you will forget much of what you learn in college, so far as the particulars of the classroom are concerned, and most of that will be what would traditionally be called the “liberal arts”—or general education. Only what is called pre-professional studies, or graduate school preparation, will have much to do with what you do after you graduate, as an extension of the same kind of thing. And this will be important for only a relatively small number of students. About 30 percent of Union students go directly to graduate school, and within five years another 10 percent or so. So, less than half of any given Union graduating class will pursue graduate studies; the remainder will reluctantly join the real world. It will take these intrepid souls an average of three months to get their first job and most will stay in that first job for only about two years. Many of you will move back home for a time. The most important thing about that first job is that…it is a job. It is much easier to go from employed to employed than it is to go from unemployed to employed. Your first job should be something that you want to do and will enjoy doing, but will also serve as a launching pad for your next move.

But what about the liberal education part of college? The most obvious limitation on what it can do for you is that you will forget most of it anyway. Moreover, four years is only about 5 percent of your total expected lifetime. The specific facts that you will be asked to learn in your general education program, the “liberal” part, are not all that important at a very basic level. No, the true outcome of a program of liberal education is the permanent possibility of liberal learning. You come out of the black box four years later as a potential human being in the full Aristotelian sense of that expression. This is what many people mean when they talk about “life-long learning”: a capacity, or habit, that college can give you if you know what to do with it.

If specific liberal arts “facts,” so to speak, are not what matter, then what does? Well, it would seem to follow, sadly, that grades don’t matter much either. And, in fact, apart from graduate school admission, this does seem to be the case.  A large survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) reveals that of the 20 most desirable skills and abilities in a prospective employee, a GPA in the range of 3−3.5 ranked just fourth from the bottom of the list, right above creativity, sense of humor and a willingness to take risks. But let’s be clear:  grades do matter for things that you want to do in college (internships, international study, etc.), so be aware of the requirements for such activities.

At the very top of the NACE list are “communication skills” (verbal and written). In other words, employers don’t want to talk to you if you can’t write and speak correctly, persuasively, coherently and logically—even if your prose style is not exactly elegant. This includes, it almost goes without saying, having the corresponding analytical skills.  Seek out courses that require a lot of writing, even if you are writing-aversive, especially courses in which the instructor is known to provide substantial feedback. Actively seek out public speaking or classroom presentation opportunities—and speak up in class!   Graduating seniors routinely report that these kinds of skills are the ones they most hope to have improved in college.

Items two and three on the list (after honesty) involve teamwork and interpersonal skills. These are skills that cannot be taught; they can only be learned by doing. Consistent with maintaining a respectable GPA, seek out every opportunity you can to work in teams or groups, in or out of class.

Volunteer for service activities, internships, student government and community projects. Join a fraternity or sorority that emphasizes community and charitable service—or turn the Greek organization you already belong to into such a group. I am not aware of a chapter of Alpha Phi Omega at Union. If that’s right, then start one. But trading off course work, grades and extracurricular activities for partying is simply a bad bargain. Varsity and intramural athletics also offer opportunities for group cooperation and leadership; employers, for example, often seek out team captains for initial interviews. Studies have suggested that extracurricular activities up to 15-20 hours per week are not significantly correlated with grades one way or the other. In other words, you can do it.

It is sometimes claimed that the Internet is the most important development for deliberative democracy since, oh, the death of Socrates. But does the Internet make you a more informed voter, a more intelligent citizen? Or are you just criminally dangerous when you walk into a voting booth—if you ever do?

I take it as given that an informed citizen, a citizen trying to continue the habits of learning started (ideally) in college, must compel him or herself to encounter and engage with views, opinions, prejudices and people quite different from one’s own and oneself. One should not, in so far as possible, deliberately insulate oneself from anyone or any thought that one regards as wrong-headed, immoral or just plain foolish. I take this as given for all of the reasons John Stuart Mill provides in On Liberty, and won’t repeat them here. Increasingly we may not be bowling alone (to borrow the title of a now-famous book on the decline of community), but we’re certainly bowling with people just like ourselves. Some people call this the “echo-chamber effect”:

• The Daily Me: we only want to see that with which we agree;

• Newsgroups/blogs reflecting just your interests and prejudices;

• Polarization increasing within like-minded groups.

General interest intermediaries (newspapers, magazines, radio, even television) used to supply a kind of social glue, a common world of experiences and reporting about current events; readers, at least, all pretty much had the same picture about the bare facts of what was going on in the world. This is no longer true. Never mind our not having any common agreement; we don’t even have a very basic common knowledge base.

Your college experience prepares you to become something other than intellectually or spiritually impoverished, but for many of you this may be the last time you will read a significant number of books. It has been estimated that fully 25 percent of adults, in a given year, read no books at all; the average adult might read as many as four in a given year, or one every three months.  This is a fast track to a stagnant, or dead, mind and heart.

But unless, as with general interest intermediaries, you force yourself to confront, or at least have dropped on your doorstep or in your mailbox, whether you like or not, books and magazines very much worth reading—and which it will turn out you actually enjoy reading, the habit will atrophy and die. The opportunity you graduated with, to become a fully realized human being so far as you are capable, will be irretrievably lost. And so far as I am concerned, you get only one chance.

This, for a citizen in a deliberative democracy, is what I call the “moral obligation to be intelligent.”



Leave a Reply