The heart of the liberal arts


By Rhea Howard

In January, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York reported that today’s graduates are overqualified for the low-paying, minimum wage, part-time jobs that they are accepting at unprecedented rates.

This, of course, is no surprise to any of us current students. For as long as we can remember, we’ve been told that our generation’s economic future is going to be rough. Our financial frames of reference are Enron, Madoff and the recession of 2009. We harbor no delusions.

We know that a generic college degree is no longer the magic ticket to a white picket fence, a pension and 40-hour workweek. Instead, we must adopt one of three possible college strategies.

The first is the most foolproof, but is also the most difficult to properly source. This strategy involves finding parents who are well networked and who can support your unemployed butt until their connections eventually result in you getting a job.

The second strategy is to rationalize that Union is your last chance at limitless fun before the harsh reality of the adult world sets in. This logic often results in a pretty unwavering schedule: Messed-up Monday, Trashed Tuesday, Wasted Wednesday, Thirsty Thursday, F*cked-up Friday, Sh*tfaced Saturday and, to round it all out, Sunday Fun-day.

The third strategy is decidedly the most time intensive. This approach to increasing the likelihood of post-grad success is to squeeze every ounce of opportunity you possibly can out of these four years. You know these students. You see them running to meetings and classes and practices and rehearsals. You see them getting kicked out of the library at 2 a.m.

They are RAs, club presidents, straight-A students, Minerva Council members, student researchers, Greek e-board members, peer tutors, athletes, performers and volunteers, often all at once. They went abroad and organize their own independent studies; if they’re not double majoring, they have a collection of minors and often take four classes per term.

Their grades are impressive, yes, but they’re also involved in myriad extracurriculars. The only thing they regularly say no to is sleep. But, what is perhaps the most incredible thing about these students is that they’re not rare. On the contrary, Union is littered with the “do-everything” type.

Is so much student involvement a good thing? A quick glance at the Union website indicates that our institution approves of our neurotic involvement. It seems to shout to prospective students, “Look at everything there is to do here.”

And, it’s true. On any given day there might be several speakers, a Taylor concert, several movies, a political or human’s rights discussion, student artistic performances and a sponsored charity event. There are hundreds of leadership positions on campus, and each of the students who fills those leadership positions need to prove to the Resume Gods that his or her organization is making a difference.

What is the result of these innumerable fascinating events? A vibrant intellectual community? Hardly. Our response is campus-wide apathy. Frankly, we’re supersaturated. Most of us are just too busy planning, advertising and coercing our friends into attending our own little events to be bothered by 99 percent of the things we see posted around campus.

Although there are 30 events every day, regardless of the quality, attendance is usually paltry. Take, for example, SNL comedian Jay Pharoah who performed in Memorial Chapel last week. Judging by the Facebook post (as I didn’t actually attend), there weren’t more than 50 people in the audience. It isn’t that we don’t want to go, we’re simply too exhausted.

We live in a world that values production over artful consumption, and, as students, we know this.

In a job or graduate school interview, you can brag about how you organized this event or managed that club, but you cannot explain that you had lots of wonderful discussions at Minerva dinners, were fascinated by a speaker or listened to your fellow students sing or dance or play music.

Whether we like it or not, we will be entering the job market, and we know the competition is harsh. Quite simply, we are incentivized to grasp opportunities, instead of being incentivized to contribute to Union’s intellectual climate and community spirit.

The succeed-or-fail dichotomy spills over into our approaches to academics, too. We quickly learn what subjects interest us and, within those, which subjects we have natural talents for. After we complete our gen-ed requirements (often with a scowl), we try not to branch out. Why? Because a high GPA, like everything else on our resumes, is going to be the golden ticket to eventually paying off loans.

Why should I risk branching out when I know that I can succeed in the subjects that I already love? This is directly opposed to the liberal arts educational model, but from the perspective of a student trying to get ahead in the job market, it is completely logical.

Once I’ve fulfilled my major, minor and gen-ed requirements, there is danger that comes from pursuing challenging coursework.  Why should I test myself with an upper-level, writing-based English lit class, a science with a lab or an additional math class that I know will be time consuming, will probably hurt my GPA and may limit the resources that I can expend on my extracurriculars?

These trends are not unique to Union; they are symptoms of a larger problem within education: the issue of appearance versus authenticity. Employers are more impressed by the appearance of leadership, motivation and involvement than by simple, genuine, broadly based intellectual curiosity. This, of course, is not always a one-or-the-other situation. The “do everything” students are not necessarily soulless grade grubbers or intellectually hollow, but they are incentivized not to pursue things that they may not be able to be the best at. Is this the doomed future of the liberal arts? Or, is there something that can be done?

What if every year students could elect to take an “I want to because” class. This class could be anything outside of a student’s major, minor and gen-ed requirements, and would have to be from a different subject each year (so, you couldn’t take four history courses, for instance). And, what if, if you had perfect attendance and turned in all the assignments and you still didn’t like your grade, you could have the course permanently erased from your transcript?

While some students would take advantage of this set-up during spring term, I honestly think that most students crave the opportunity to try new things, to challenge themselves academically and to be engaged with material without having to worry about how it might affect their future plans.Unlike taking a course pass-fail, which has negative connotations and which is usually a game of completing as little work as possible while keeping a “P,” this system would demand a student’s full participation in the course. If you like your grade, you keep it. If you don’t, it disappears. Freedom to fail can be the ultimate freedom to learn.

I know that the administration would never sign up for this scheme, but as a “does everything” student who has had a very focused college career (in a subject that I absolutely love and feel very prepared in) I can honestly say I would have appreciated a consequence-free push to step into the unknown.In fact, a quick glance at the course register, and I think I know what classes I would’ve taken: BIO-350: “Evolutionary Biology,” CSC-235: “Modeling & Simulation,” ECO-230: “Mind of the Entrepreneur” and perhaps GRK-101: “Beginning Ancient Greek.” Could I have taken these courses anyway? Of course, but like so many other students who are plugged into the rat-race, it never even occurred to me.

They say that college, that Union, is a bubble. That it is a fake environment where we attempt to prepare for the real world. I’m sure that many will argue that dissolving even a single grade would make Union even more irrelevant to consequence-intensive adult life.Perhaps this is true. But, so what if it is? We have decades ahead of us to be intellectually stunted, to be cloistered within our fields; shouldn’t we, just for now, be able to academically explore with impunity? We cannot change what the job market incentivizes, but we can change how Union addresses it.


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