MEDANSKY: Broadening the liberal arts

The students of the journalism program, however, recieved a slightly different explanation. In a letter to the students, the program’s director, Hank Klibanoff, recounted his experiences at a recent meeting where Foreman alerted him of the program’s fate.

Journalism is “viewed by many at Emory as a ‘pre-professional program’ and therefore as ‘not an easy fit’ in a liberal arts environment,” Klibanoff wrote. “It’s unclear to me why we didn’t have a discussion on that, even a debate, before the decision was made to close the program.”

In his immortal 2008 essay, William Deresiewicz took to the pages of the American Scholar to craft the image of the bumbling Ivy League graduate, able to navigate corporate boardrooms and cocktail parties yet utterly bamboozled by a conversation with the local plumber. The titular disadvantages of an elite education, he writes, are myriad: We live in gated castles and earn meaningless grades, failing to ever learn. Deresiewicz bemoans that only a “small minority” of Ivy League undergraduates “have seen their education as part of a larger intellectual journey,” daring to ask the “big questions” that define the life of the mind. Churning out doctors, lawyers and MBAs, to Deresiewicz, is anathema to the pursuit of liberal education. Liberal education is “something more” than a shot at Harvard Law or Goldman Sachs.

I revive Deresiewicz not because I think he is particularly novel, but because I think his piece effectively illustrates the weird false dichotomy that’s plaguing our peers down in Atlanta.

The quest to define what constitutes a liberal arts education is often needlessly exclusive. The classic liberal arts education included music, geometry, astronomy and rhetoric, among other disciplines. And math is math is math, whether you’re learning it to churn out spreadsheets and financial models on Wall Street or to write proofs in an academic post — or just because you think it’s cool.

We can’t get hung up on definitions. The line between “liberal arts” and “pre-professional” is relative, not authoritative, and the two are not mutually exclusive.

After all, if Emory truly believes the line between liberal arts and career skills is so firm, it should ban future engineers from taking higher-level math courses; they might, you know, use those skills at work someday. Future novelists? Stay away from literature, lest you dare to glean some inspiration from Dickens or Cervantes. Interested in a career in music? Sorry, those classes are restricted to the tone-deaf.

Yes, some disciplines are more pre-professional than others — but the idea that a course in journalism could only exist in the context of a pre-professional experience is simply untrue, as is the notion that some disciplines are devoid of career-applicable skills. A journalism course, for instance, might employ sociology or anthropology to question recent media trends (“Muslim Rage,” anyone?). It might include a reading list of journalistic standards, then force students to analyze them; that’s no different from a literature course. This isn’t just true for journalism, but also engineering, art, education and more. I buy that budget cuts are a thing, and universities need to prioritize, but doing so on the terms of some liberal-artsier-than-thou humanists is harmful.

The liberal arts are — dare I say it — a social construct; ask any STEM major (emphasis on science and math, both liberal arts) who has chuckled when a humanities major mourns Yale’s loss of its “liberal arts” focus. If we really want to embrace the liberal arts, we need to recognize that they’re broader than Emory’s dean thinks and apply the same principles of critical thought and analysis across the disciplines — no matter how professional those disciplines might be.

Marissa Medansky is a sophomore in Morse College. Her column runs on Tuesdays. Contact her at marissa.medansky@yale.edu .

Comments

  • The Anti-Yale

    The real LINE, (and the undeclared war between the Bill & Melinda Gradgrinds v the Harold Blooms of the world) is :

    LEFT BRAIN worshippers who believe that everything can be quantified and measured in standardized testing,

    vs.

    RIGHT BRAIN aesthetes, who know that NOTHING VALUABLE CAN.

    Interesting, but cruel, battle.

    Bill and Melinda Gradgrind http://gradgrindfoundation.blogspot.com and their clones, Rahm Emanuel, Arne Duncan (and even the Obam man himself), seem totally indifferent to the fact that they are grinding up all the right brain flowers in their obsession with “measuring” left brain “outcomes”.

    They are ever so anxious that we are falling behind China and India in producing left brain wonks, aka ‘engineers’.

    Mercy!

    Run right home parents and give your children two tablespoons of facts, morning, noon, and night, to ward off this epidemic.

    As every mother knows, you cannot rush a rose.

    See BOOOST (“Better Opt Out Of Standardized Testing’) my challenge to parents across America to revolt against cowardly school boards across America, including the school board that authorized my salary in Vermont for the last 25 years.

    http://testoptout.blogspot.com

    (And now, here they come, all my left brain credentials— just to annoy the left brain wonks.)

    Paul D. Keane

    M. Div. ‘80

    M.A., M.Ed.

  • River_Tam

    Yay!

    I imagine there was some early geometer who thought Thales of Miletus “sold out” by using geometry to calculate pyramid heights.