There are a variety of indications that I’m at yet another awkward age. I’m old enough not to give a damn about whoever might be offended at some off-handed comment I may make. I care even less about reactions to comments I make that I’ve thought long and hard about.
Awkward moments have occurred.
I’m not sure if this latest condition includes anything physical. I shuffle along due to the neuropathy that has taken up residence in my legs. Shuffling might not be part of the awkward age, but turning to my left certainly is. (I don’t like to turn to my right for political reasons.)
All of our friends’ children are grown up, pursuing their careers as baristas and starting their own families in homes they cannot afford. To many of those, years ago, I provided suggestions pertaining to their collegiate futures. This advice was usually unsolicited and widely ignored, but that didn’t even slow me down, let alone stop me. I harangued them with my visions of higher education garnered from my own experiences at two different colleges. I wanted them to avoid the pitfalls I found along the way.
And now I find myself in advisory limbo: One generation past college, with the next generation too young to consider their academic futures. I’m eager to advise the grandchildren and as soon as they look up from their devices, I will.
In this week’s edition of The New Yorker, Nathan Heller, a staff writer since 2013, goes into excruciating detail in his article, “The End of the English Major.” Armed with a ream of statistics and a slurry of anecdotes, Heller offers a keen analysis of why college students are leaving the humanities—in droves—for placement in hard-core studies that seem to bode well for singular scholarship and big paychecks from industry.
He also addresses the monetization of curricula geared to job placement, typically from such academic disciplines like business, engineering and hard sciences.
While there certainly is room for such an approach to education, I don’t believe it should be done at the expense of a well-integrated program of liberal arts, from which a “major” can be constructed.
Schools habitually point to career achievements of their alumni. These bragging rights help bring in the money to fund brick-and-mortar facilities, as well as programs in various disciplines. Few graduates whose academic focus was Victor Hugo, are storming the halls of Wall Street. They are not joining the ranks of the MBAs whose familiarity with Hugo might be limited to having heard the soundtrack from Les Miz.
I happen to have several friends in academia and several other professions who are academically well-rounded—their interests broad and varied. I suspect, since most of them are roughly my age, that they attended college when a required core curriculum introduced them to literature, history, social sciences, art and music. That requirement, as I understand it, has lessened, allowing more classroom time for a student’s declared interest and less time for the humanities. There are good arguments for both, although I’d like to note that Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, was a virtuoso bongo player.
It is my firm belief that a liberal arts education is what college-bound students should pursue. The average college student changes majors with great frequency, so often, in fact, that most students can’t earn a degree in the once-standard four years. Both medicine and the law require an undergraduate degree in something before admittance to the advanced program. A vigorous course of studies in the humanities builds a good foundation for whatever may follow. (I knew three music majors who went on to law school.)
This was what I preached to my children. One studied theater; the other went to a maritime academy and became a ship’s captain.
There are no doubt thousands of students who are determined to focus on a single discipline. I would guess that such a commitment is mostly in the arts by students seeking only the wealth of the exploration of expression.
As a freshman in college, I pursued with equal enthusiasm music and philosophy. At my next attempt, I might as well have been a literature major since that, upon reflection, made up for at least half my course load. The rest was in philosophy, history and economics. After learning that I was lacking an acceptable language credit for a degree, I scrambled around and found myself earning a Bachelor’s degree in journalism, which had no language requirement.
By designing my studies in such a way that mostly bowed to my interests, I avoided science and math. Time I might have spent in a chemistry lab—recreating experiments long proven—would have been a complete waste. I’ve always believed that survey courses in both the natural and hard sciences would be more than sufficient to make sure every college graduate in the humanities had a working knowledge of how things appear and work.
By the same token, business majors and biologists should be required to study, albeit briefly, literature, art history and music appreciation.
It’s my sense that such an approach to higher education would turn out classes of graduates who had been exposed to a maximum of educational opportunities.
Besides, the downward curve of learning doesn’t preclude the ability of one to be trained.
Stove-top artistry by Courtney A. Liska
As far as I know, ramen noodles had yet to be invented when I went to college. Well, I’m sure they had been, but they had yet to reach the grocery-store shelves in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. Now, of course, college students live on them, except when they’re having pizza or are dunking their Oreos in cheap beer.
In honor of this blog celebrating my views on college curricula, I am suggesting that we all have some ramen. It’s cheap (about 50 cents per package) and takes only three minutes to cook. They come in a variety of flavors, all of which, I assume, are enhanced with any number of artificial things and chemicals that originally were used to clean chlorine sediment from the sides of swimming pools. (Actually, I don’t know what’s in them because not even bifocals will allow me to read the package.)
Anyway, boil some water and soak the noodles. Turn on an old movie, crank up the stereo, and start again reading Victor Hugo. All at once. Welcome back to college.
Lynn Cicalo says
Could not agree with you more, Jim! And I believe that the better-rounded education that you describe would also help us to bridge our cultural chasm. By its nature, a fuller education leads to greater curiosity and tolerance.