To the editor:
I enjoyed reading Bill Fedullo’s Nov 5 column “The liberal arts aren’t all about job prospects”, and I agree with much of what he says. The economic benefits of a liberal arts education are indeed less a result of the content taught at a liberal arts school than of the prestige of its name, the networking opportunities it provides, and the competitive students it admits.
But I think he veers off course when he declares that we need to accept that liberal arts education is about building better people demanding the “dismantlement of the education to employment pipeline.” He faults the college website’s “Why the Liberal Arts Matter” section for failing to effectively articulate the “idea and promise of the liberal arts” and for offering a few links that suggest liberal arts degrees can help job candidates.
The suggestion that a Swarthmore degree could serve a practical, real-life function?! That sounds too concrete and commonsensical to get far here. Best to mock the very suggestion and kick the conversation back up to the pretentious, vaguely intellectual level it usually hovers at. “If you graduate with a degree from Swarthmore,” Fedullo mockingly summarizes, “you too can move to sunny Silicon Valley and invent a quicker way for the masses to use their smartphones to find partners for casual sex.”
Fedullo seems to feel that society, exemplified by the people behind that web page, have lost sight of what really matters: “College education has been captured by the logic of investments and returns, and the liberal arts must accommodate this conquest.” But why is that such a bad thing? The idea that a liberal arts college uniquely trains students to be better people, to orient themselves differently in the world, is bullshit.
At Swarthmore we may all learn something from our classes and from living in a compressed campus environment, but we are not becoming better people than business school students, or nursing school students, or those who don’t go to college. There is nothing wrong with liberal arts ideals, of course, but that doesn’t make them better than anyone else’s ideals. And a liberal arts education is as much a product as anything else that costs tens of thousands of dollars. I don’t know what function, other than self-aggrandizement, is served by the idea of liberal arts education as some noble enterprise riding high above the materialistic world of everyday life.
If anything, Swarthmore needs less, not more, of that idea. Too often administrators and professors here seem to take for granted that the ways we do things are beyond question and a product of our noble ideals, when in fact they’re often just inefficient or outdated. They should spend more time reckoning with the the difficult practical question of whether they’re delivering all they should for a staggering $61,400 per year. To offer just one example: Quite embarrassingly Swarthmore has no college-wide course evaluation system, so students have no way to make sure they’re choosing courses that will really provide them with what they want.
As a result, I ended up spending a semester in a course with a (tenured) professor who never—never!—turned back a single item of graded work, despite requiring multiple papers. A friend of mine took a double credit “seminar” in which the (tenured) professor often spoke for upwards of four and a half of the five hours and never allowed students to respond directly to each other. It got so bad that another professor suggested that my friend find a way to read unrelated material on his computer to get through class. What’s wrong with asking whether that experience is really worth more than $10,000 for which his parents worked hard?
Soon most of us seniors will have to earn a living for ourselves. I hope that after making it through a place as frustrating as here, my degree will help me be successful. I certainly won’t be under the illusion that I’m a better person as a result of listening to endless prattling about the nobility of the liberal arts.