Not Just the First Job: Liberal Education as a Public Good
April 1, 2015
Sabbatical Showcase and Spring Celebration
Frederick J. Antczak
Michael S. Roth, president of Wesleyan University, has written books about the value of liberal education and has a worthwhile recent piece in New Republic entitled “College Shouldn't Prepare You for Your First Job. It Should Prepare You for Your Life.” He points out that charges of the “irrelevance and elitism” of education are not an artifact of the internet, but have a long history in America, including some notables who signed the Constitution (and then they promptly instituted public education—go figure).[i]
Even the Chronicle of Higher Ed has cover stories on drop-out entrepreneurs, and we are a culture that holds its Horatio Alger stories dear. But let’s pause there: even Alger called Harvard his alma mater. One could fairly characterize us as a people in animated conversation about the path to success, or even what constitutes success. Somewhere in the slippage between John Locke’s notion of the pursuit of property and the framers’ related but differently inflected “pursuit of happiness,” we were set up to be unclear on the nature of our project—and perhaps that is our genius.
Many of you may have an older relative whose behavior was shaped by growing up during the Great Depression. Well, many of our students got their first inklings of their economic world during the recent Great Recession. No, they are not compulsively saving rubber bands or balls of twine, but the response may be as manic in its own way. In the timeline of most students, there have always been internet comments and article headlines hyperbolically designed to produce ‘click through’ about those drowning in student loans, or not immediately harvesting big returns on their tuition investment, or even about the poor schmucks silly enough to choose a “worst” major.
Somehow those on the “worst” list seem to be the ones involved with the parts of life that do the most to make it worth living—art, literature, music, anthropology, sociology, languages. And right now, the detractors of all that are particularly mobilized: at least five state Governors are asking for at least $300M back—more than GVSU’s whole annual budget—from their respective states’ higher education systems over the next biennium. One Governor attempted to replace “the search for truth” from the system mission, substituting “to meet the state’s workforce needs.” As for all this stuff about making life worth living, what does that have to do with higher education? That clearly is a private good that the taxpayers shouldn’t be asked to support. As the Governor of Florida recently said,
We don’t need a lot more anthropologists in the state. It’s a great degree if people want to get it, but we don’t need them here. I want to spend our dollars giving people science, technology, engineering, and math degrees. That’s what our kids need to focus all their time and attention on, those types of degrees, so when they get out of school, they can get a job.[ii]
But we can’t just ignore the naysayers. States that are cutting higher education expect their institutions to make up the dollars themselves. This likely comes from tuition increases, thereby lifting education’s price point beyond what many families, especially those with several kids in school, can reach. So we need to hear this budgetary discourse—and act on it thoughtfully, for our students’ best interest.
For instance, even while GVSU students actually carry debt below national averages and a third of them graduate without any student debt, we still have been responding to the debt crisis. GVSU incentivized on-time graduation because it is one of the most direct ways for students to avoid unnecessary debt, and to make education affordable for more people. That’s why, applying principles of our Advising Task Force, we’re refocusing our advising so that students might see how it can be penny wise but pound foolish to avoid a 16th credit hour now that causes them to take an extra semester later. That’s why, as we implement proposals from our Principles of Equitable Allocation Taskforce, we also must look hard at other impediments to successful movement through the curriculum.
This all helps us to meet the kinds of measures that see our Governor proposing to give us a 4% budget increase. Our willingness not to compromise our ultimate goals, but to transform our pedagogical practice, now has us ranked by one source[iii] as the tenth best university of our kind in the nation—and over the next year of departmental strategic planning, you have the opportunity to identify the ways in which that rise is only the beginning. We are seen as one of the top two or three or four public institutions in our state, depending on the measure. These measures help us address our critics in their own terms: no one can deny how much we have been raising the marketability of the education we offer. All that is good for our students…BUT what’s at stake is so much more than a first job.
I very much hope you are paying attention to the clarion voices of those who see the inherent value of a liberal education. A great recent example was tucked away in an article at the bottom of a PIC newsletter. An alumna of Art & Design, Julie Upmeyer who lives in Istanbul these days, wrote:
Observing educational philosophies here in Turkey, as well as in other countries throughout the world, I have a new respect for the American concept of a liberal arts education. I am grateful that in addition to my fine arts courses at GVSU I was also able to study such diverse topics as geology, tae kwon do, ethics, marketing, and the scientific revolution. This has greatly benefited my practice as an artist, as well as my life as a human being. I believe experiences from one field are certainly applicable and greatly beneficial to any other, especially for an artist.
As a sculptor and creator of three-dimensional things, I’m often frustrated that my work is generally viewed as a two-dimensional photograph, or as a zero-dimensional digital image. My current body of work is exploring just that, the mathematical and physical relationships between one, two, and three dimensions. My ability to digest math books and apply them to the creation of sculptures and other art works is a direct result of my diverse and general education. I have learned how to learn, which enables me to continue doing so now and far into the future, in whichever country I choose to live.[iv]
I suspect Julie is exactly what we had in mind when our mission statement was originally drafted. Speaking only for myself, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have chosen this line of work if all I was accomplishing was training people for a first job—where the average college grad spends an average of 18 months.[v]
Our current students have some pretty wonderful things to say on this subject, too. As perhaps you have heard, “Abigail DeHart, a double-major in Classics and Philosophy, and Justin Ebert, a double-major in Classics and Economics, have each been recognized with the 2015 Glenn A. Niemeyer Student Award. “[vi] Both are members of the CLAS Student Advisory Committee so the Associate Deans and I get a regular dose of these students, and a bunch of others, who make the most of their education, love it here, lay the credit like laurels on the heads of the faculty, and are full of ideas to make this an even better place—all while learning to dream, not merely about a first job, but about engaging and changing the world.
While the alumni and students who appreciate their liberal education are probably all the inspiration we need to keep striving and keep resisting the forces that would cheapen us in ways we can ill afford, we also have each other.
For instance, as classicists like Abigail and Justin would point out, you gotta love it when Diane Rayor can translate ancient poetry gleaned from newly discovered scraps of papyrus, and it goes viral on the internet based on two articles in the New Yorker in the same week, written by a scholar who came to know GVSU through our Fall Arts Celebration. How’s that for the ancient and the modern? A few days before that, Karen Libman had her Fulbright confirmed—she’ll be making the most of the meeting of east and west. And a few days before that Darren Walhof was awarded the University Outstanding Teacher Award; Darren has a brilliant knack for finding ways to make students teach themselves things that may be contrary to their own assumptions—which is what we all must do more generally. These faculty and so many others take what might seem to be in opposition, or separated in time or space, or unconnected, or obvious--and make so much more of it. You can see that happening as a result of our work this year. We have a new Behavioral Neuroscience program. We are welcoming first cohort of the School Psychology MA. Broadcasting and Journalism have merged into a more cutting edge Multimedia Journalism program. Thanks to the faculty and hard work by Mary Schutten, this is the first year of expansion of CSAT major to pair with special education and elementary Spanish teacher certification, and we will be starting in the Fall a new Foreign Language collaborative, extending our instruction in less commonly taught languages. We have a new Medical Humanities and Health certificate. And in the next year, under Gretchen Galbraith’s leadership, you will be seeing some intriguing public initiatives from the humanities—poetry on buses; a week full of stoicism; and a positively interstellar fall arts celebration.
I hope all of these examples illustrate that we are in the “business,” AND the vocation, of squeezing more out of the fruit of life than the first job.
Our students do well in landing their first job, but we will have fulfilled our obligation only if we can also help students to appreciate the transformation. When, say, Patricia Clark publishes poetry in the Kenyon Review, she models a kind of mastery far beyond what anyone would use to tweak a cover letter. Our scientists like Merritt Taylor work with students starting in their freshman year to build their lab skills and scientific knowledge to a point that they can be truly significant participants in the research; they do so for reasons beyond helping their students to add to the list on their resume of equipment they have used. It is a good idea to remind students that their portfolio represents their work for a particular purpose, but that who they have become in doing that work is an altogether more profound and more influential matter—empowering not just for workers, but for informed citizens and empathetic human beings; influential not for 18 months in the first job, but the future, foreseeable and unforeseen.
For just as some states are going vocational to the most myopic degree, nobody can say what skills will be needed—and outdated—even five years from now; nobody can tell us what the makeup of the workforce will need to be ten, much less twenty years on. And at the same time, we’re seeing more and more articles in popular magazines like Time magazine[vii] the Atlantic[viii] and National Geographic[ix] about longevity; the first person to reach 150 is already alive, the Daily Mail[x] with wondrous specificity proclaims (I guess one lesson would be, mind your IRA!). So here’s the most practical question about education, a question our students will have to be able to answer in times and circumstances that neither we nor they can anticipate: what can make a life that long worth living every day?
The education we offer must address more than the first job—and today we can say it does. We can look back in satisfaction at a year when we had great success in transforming expectations for short term private goods into something durable and adaptable, something that enriches public AND private life, now and in a bright, long future.