Liberal Arts, Nemesis of the Liberal Arts

When I first began conducting informational interviews and applying for jobs outside academia, I was struck by how hard it was to tell my story in a compelling way.  Like most people who pursue a Ph.D., I felt strongly that I’d learned much from the experience and that I had skills I could put to good use in other sectors.  Even so, it was often a challenge to explain the value of what I did on a day-to-day basis in a way that resonated with my audience.  It often seemed like we were speaking different languages–and I didn’t know how to translate.

This observation got me thinking about my own experiences in graduate school, and in particular the arguments people from the humanities and liberal arts like to advance to justify the central place their disciplines have traditionally held within higher education.  The liberal arts are, by definition, the fields of study that are appropriate to a free person (< Lat. līber, free).  Taken more broadly, they constitute a collection of knowledge that is meant to help individuals determine their own path through life and society.  The specific objects of study that this entails will necessarily change over time–works of literature fall out of the canon; greater emphasis is placed on one or another field; a particular subset of available worldviews is considered foundational in light of current geopolitical or social affairs–but the point of the liberal arts always remains the same: to give people a set of tools that allows them to be successful as they engage with the world around them.

The vision of education that this entails is central to how universities promote themselves even today.  The “undergraduate experience” is envisioned as a four-year course of study where (mostly) young people live in residence on a campus.  During that time they take classes and participate in activities that prepare them to be contributing members of their society–be that envisioned as serving the state economy, a religious mission, or humanity at large.  Colleges are also increasingly vocal about their ability to shape their students into leaders, people who can assess significant problems in the world and develop viable solutions to address them.  For all this trendy terminology is meant to suggest that colleges are reinventing what education means in the 21st century, they are essentially pursuing the same same end-goals discussed above.  And while there’s decidedly a greater interest in business programs now than there was before the recession, colleges are primarily advancing these missions through their schools of liberal arts–divisions that are usually synonymous with the larger university of which they are a part.*

What’s amazing–for all Americans love to criticize the humanities and liberal arts–is that people buy into this.  Literally.  Tuition, room, and board at Tulane now tops $65,000 per year, and I’m told Georgetown recently broke the $70,000 threshold.  Even if the vast majority of students enrolled in these institutions pays nowhere near those sums, people are spending a great deal on the “college experience” because they believe it will increase the odds that they or their children will be more successful in whatever they decide to do.  We can also see this through alumni engagement.  Despite the vast sums they may have already spent, many feel strong connections to their school and actually donate to it after they graduate.  Good marketing by development offices may have a small role to play, but this sort of commitment is rooted in the positive experiences these people had and their deeply held belief that they benefited–and continue to benefit–from the ways in which their college prepared them to engage with the world.  The liberal arts does truly set you free, and there is seemingly no upper limit to what people are willing to pay for freedom.

This is all well and good if we’re talking about undergraduate education. But the situation is different when we turn to advanced study.  One might expect that if taking basic courses across the liberal arts as a 20 year old can prepare you to do anything, seeking a master’s degree or even a doctorate in one of its component fields would instantly establish you as a leader in the wider community.  This is obviously not a normal outcome for most graduate students.  Most of the people I knew in that position found their definition of themselves shrinking over time.  Year by year, exam by exam, they came to specialize in a minute area of a sub-discipline of an academic department that few people had ever heard of (“What’s Classics?  Music like Beethoven or books like Moby Dick?  And what do you plan to do with that, anyway?”).  To me, at least, the experience of progressing through graduate school often felt like doors kept shutting in front of me until there was only one left open: it was a pretty doorway, but it was at the top of a very high, very rickety staircase protected by a contingent of armed guards keen to keep people out.  The doorway was labeled “Tenure Track Job.”

It is of course a misconception that you can only do one thing with a doctorate, but it is a feeling that is pervasive among those who go through graduate school in the liberal arts.  My sense is that this results from a mix of the intensive study the pursuit requires and the fact that you spend years on end cloistered with people in the same field.  Over time your world shrinks because you have little contact with anybody outside your small community, and eventually your entire sense of self becomes tied up in your ability to attain the single mark of success that is the preoccupation of everyone you know: passing through the doorway at the top of the rickety staircase.  Unfortunately, your ability to do so depends on the guards. They’re a finicky bunch whose decisions to let people pass are seemingly made at random, and no matter how good you are there’s no guarantee that they’ll deem you worthy when you approach.  Without knowing how or when it happened, then, you wake up one day convinced that the guards control your fate.  You no longer feel in control of your own path in life.  Your study of the liberal arts has actually tied you down.  You’ve ceased to be free.

This paradoxical situation is one that needs to be addressed if we want advanced study of the liberal arts to be treated as an important and valuable pursuit in our society. My own view is that things would be improved if academics at all levels were compelled to speak more regularly with people outside of academia.  Doing so quickly teaches you how to discuss your work with non-specialists and to avoid such failures of translation as I described at the start of this post.  More often than not, this entails focusing less on the material you study than on the approaches you take when analyzing it.  “Using details to understand the big picture,” “placing pieces of evidence within their wider context,” and  “finding new solutions to long-standing problems” are all phrases that will make sense to nearly anyone you meet.  “Undertaking a philological analysis of Stoic concepts in Lucan’s Bellum Civile,” “relating my poet’s discussion of ekpyrosis to other extant philosophical and poetic models,” and “critiquing the failures of narratological and deconstructionist theory in addressing this topic as a preliminary to proposing a new theory of Lucan’s aesthetics” are decidedly phrases that will not.

The good news is that a number of groups are beginning to grapple with these problems in serious ways.  Numerous college career centers are giving greater attention to graduate students on the assumption that many will end up pursuing work outside of academia.  At a conference in January I also heard rumor of a school that now requires its graduate students to discuss a non-professorial career with their advisors by the end of their second year.  The Society for Classical Studies is doing its part, too, by promoting alternative lines of work through the Committee on Graduate Education and Career Development.  While the details are still being hammered out, this is likely to include online resources, panels or round-tables at annual meetings, and (possibly) the inclusion of non-academic jobs in the Society’s Placement Service.  I’m especially excited about what these changes mean for me and my relation to the discipline.  As the Society expands its definition of Classicist to include those working in a variety of sectors, it appears I will continue to have a place within that community regardless of which doorway–or doorways–I choose to take in the future.



*I would love to know more about this phenomenon.  Universities seem comfortable naming business and other professional programs after individuals (e.g. Penn’s Wharton, Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business, or UVA’s Darden), but their central colleges of arts and sciences are almost always identified with the university itself (e.g. Penn’s College of Arts and Sciences, Georgetown College, UVA’s College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences).  Now that I mention it, though, I’m reminded that there’s actually some fun history on this issue.  There’s a (possibly made-up) story that Paul Tulane offered a large donation to his hometown college of Princeton (then the College of New Jersey) if they would change their name to Tulane.  The board refused, so Tulane tried making the same offer to the Medical College of Louisiana.  They were happy to acquiesce, and Tulane University was born.  This allegedly accounts for why the statue of Tulane at his burial plot in Princeton is positioned such that his back is turned towards campus.

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