Collegiate reflections: Studying the liberal arts

Contemporary view of the main drive of the VU campus, looking not terribly different than from back in the day.

I sometimes remark to my students that I had to go to law school, given that my undergraduate studies in the liberal arts (with a political science major) didn’t exactly bust open doors to select jobs upon graduation, especially in the midst of a severe recession.

But I confess that this quip, which usually gets a laugh or two, obscures the fact that the deeper value of a liberal arts education is in its long-term dividends, not in its short-term job market clout.

Back in the day

As an undergraduate at Valparaiso University (Class of 1981) in Indiana, I pursued a fairly well-rounded liberal arts curriculum, favoring subjects such as political science, communication and debate, history, and economics. These courses helped to give me an understanding of the world and my place in it. Overall, liberal arts study sharpened my critical thinking abilities and nurtured writing and communications skills that have proven valuable to me throughout my life.

Given that I wasn’t the most intellectually mature individual during my collegiate years, the seeds planted by the liberal arts did not fully sprout for many years (er, decades). When that point arrived, however, the late-blooming epiphanies were powerful ones, such as understanding totalitarian rule in the private sector (thank you, George Orwell) and appreciating the power of storytelling (likewise, Homer).

Great Books

Many of my friends were enrolled in Christ College, VU’s liberal arts honors college. Through CC’s courses, roughly half of their degree program was devoted to an interdisciplinary study of classic works of Western Civilization (a/k/a the “Great Books”).

I gave Christ College a try but never finished the full program. As a collegian, my plan was to major in political science, go to law school, and pursue a career in politics. (Some readers may be surprised to know that I was an independent leaning strongly Republican until my final semester, when I realized my worldview had changed!) I quickly became impatient with the Great Books and gravitated toward classes that fueled my immediate ambitions.

My friends who stayed the course were gifted with an immersion in the great works of literature. Their eventual occupations, moreover, were hardly limited to “bookish” ones. Some did become educators and writers, but others pursued careers in business, law, technology, and other fields. I’ve never heard any of the latter complain that their undergraduate education was “irrelevant.”


Nevertheless, it would be hypocritical of me to tout the big ideas by trashing practical skills. A year after receiving my B.A., I would pack my bags for law school at New York University, where I devoted much of my time to vocational endeavors such as clinical programs and internships. These credentials and experiences would create many opportunities in the years to come.

So, I readily acknowledge that it’s not an “either/or.” We benefit both from honing skills that make us functional individuals and by developing broader perspectives that give our lives meaning.

Real value

Today, the liberal arts are on the defensive. Citing the demands of the job market and the costs of higher education, some regard studying history or English as an indulgence. I understand their point: Reading about the Renaissance or parsing Shakespeare doesn’t train you to work a spreadsheet or tweak a software program.

But I believe it is more than soggy reflection that causes me to urge the value of a liberal arts education. By connecting our lives to our culture and society, and by enhancing our understanding of how we can shape both, we may live richer existences as human beings and participate in our communities with a deeper sense of perspective. At a time when sound bites and “messaging” too often replace serious thought, that’s pretty good “value” in my book.


For adults only

The liberal arts may be fighting for their lives in colleges and universities, but fortunately options for adults to create affordable, personalized, independent plans of study are endless.

Visit the websites of St. John’s College in Maryland, the Great Books Foundation, or the online Harrison Middleton University for reading suggestions. Check out the vast array of liberal arts courses offered by the Teaching Company, which recruits outstanding professors to present shorter, recorded versions of their on-campus offerings.

If you want to create a personal library of your own great books, affordable paperback copies — new and used — are readily available. And with the least expensive Kindle e-reader and a bit of resourcefulness, you can obtain hundreds of great works of literature for less than the cost of a single college course.

Of course, this doesn’t even begin to tap into the titles you can borrow from your public library, not to mention free lectures and e-books available on the Internet.

Like I said, the choices are endless.

To further whet your appetite

Some books worth looking into:

Susan Wise Bauer, The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had (2003) — Recommendations for a personal course of study. For serious independent learners.

Christopher R. Beha, The Whole Five Feet (2009) — A 20-something writer spends a year reading through the Harvard Classics, the celebrated, century-old set of great books that for decades offered a do-it-yourself liberal arts education to America’s emerging middle class.

David Denby, Great Books (1996) — A New York City film critic and journalist hits a midlife crisis and returns to Columbia University’s first-year Western Civilization program.

Clifton Fadiman, The Lifetime Reading Plan (1988) — A popular guidebook to great literature, including works of the 20th century. Mine is an older edition; check for an updated one.

Roger H. Martin, Racing Odysseus: A College President Becomes a Freshman Again (2008) — After surviving cancer, a college president spends a semester at St. John’s College, studying ancient Greek literature and joining the rowing team.

Related posts

Want more socially intelligent workers? Hire novel readers (2012)

When liberal arts majors look for jobs (2009) 

From the Web’s Archives: The Management Myth (2009)


Note: With Commencement season coming to a close at colleges and universities across the nation, I beg my readers’ indulgence as I use a short series of posts to reflect upon my own collegiate experience and its immediate aftermath to address topics pertinent to this blog.

Other posts in this short series

3 responses

  1. I enjoyed this post very much. I got my undergrad degree in Liberal Arts at the Gallatin College of Individualized Study at New York University. In that program, we designed our own major and were required to read 50 classic books (25 chosen by the university; 25 by the student) and take a three and a half hour oral exam with three professors at the end of our undergraduate studies in order to receive our diplomas. I read about Buddhism and Christianity. I read Shakespeare and Chaucer. I read contemporary novels and classics like A Tale of Two Cities. I read Karl Marx and Kafka and Jane Austen and Albert Camus. I read James Lovelock’s book, Gaia. My program emphasized reading and discussion as the backbone of learning.

    Today, I teach English at the college level. (I have a creative writing MFA.) That is not something that I imagined for myself back then, but I know that the roots of my love for language and ideas started then. My liberal arts degree (and my ability to think critically and analytically) got me jobs in both the non-profit and corporate sector for many years. (I started teaching rather late in life, in my 40s.) My ability to write opened up more opportunities than almost anything else. I will never regret my choice to read great books and study the history of the world by doing so. It has served me very well.

    • I was always intrigued by the Gallatin approach from afar when I attended NYU as a law student and later taught there as an instructor. It actually struck me as being an ideal mix for the independently minded, blending great books study with internships and projects.

      • Yes, it was the perfect place for me. I liked the interdisciplinary aspect of the program and the fact that I could choose the focus that I wanted. That program completely changed my life. I know it is not for everyone, but it was a wonderful gift for me.

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