Sunday, June 6, 2010

Not dead yet

Here is a case for majoring in the liberal arts, from The Talk of the Town in the June 7th issue of The New Yorker:

The skip-college advocates' contention - that, with the economic downturn, a college degree may not be the best investment - has its appeal. Given the high cost of attending college in the United States, the question of whether a student is getting his or her money's worth tends to loom large with whoever is paying the tuition fees and the meal-plan bills. Even so, one needn't necessarily be a liberal arts graduate to regard as distinctly and speciously utilitarian the idea that higher education is, above, a route to economic advancement. Unaddressed in that calculus is any question of what else an education might be for: to nurture critical thought; to expose individuals to the signal accomplishments of humankind; to develop in them an ability not just to listen actively but to respond intelligently.

I know, I know. This sounds so grandiose and so familiar. The sentiments that become trod and retrod around this time of year at commencement exercises across the country. I have to say, however, that I am tired of people not taking these ideas seriously.

I am thinking that a "defense" of the liberal arts - btw, I am tired also of the liberal arts requiring defense, as though degrees in programs like accounting, business, or communication were self-evidently useful - is a lot like a case for craft, whether in our individualized pursuits or (as I have suggested previously) in the reinvention of work itself. As Rebecca Mead, the author of this particular Talk of the Town item, writes: "All these are habits of mind that are useful for an engaged citizenry, and from which a letter carrier, no less than a college professor, might derive a sense of self-worth."

That seems to get at the heart of the matter, I think: From what, or in what, do we find our self-worth? Clearly, in the United States today, it is connected largely with money. So, craft is important and meaningful as an alternative to, counter-discourse on, and metaphor for Money as Self-Worth. Craft is also an idea and a practice that parents can teach to their children - which opens a real possibility for meaningful change that leads us straight back to the conditions in which we work.

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