value of liberal arts
Philosophia et septem artes liberales, The seven liberal arts – Picture from the Hortus deliciarum of Herrad of Landsberg (12th century)
Philosophia et septem artes liberales, The seven liberal arts
from the Hortus deliciarum of Herrad of Landsberg (12th century)

When I read Frank Bruni’s column recently in The New York Times about the value of a liberal arts education, I was pleased at how he had honored a professor at Chapel Hill whose Shakespeare classes had been the most transformative educational experiences of his life. She had read the column and had written him, the first contact they had had since the mid-1980s, to talk more about the state of higher education in this country today.

As I squirmed over their exchange on how so many politicians want to value education according to what kind of high paying job it can bring, I can still hear the concerns over half a century ago of my father who was a practical man who had pulled himself out of the back woods of rural poverty during the Depression, struggled to get an education, and successfully earned a license that proclaimed him an engineer specializing in steam boilers. Unlike so many of his contemporaries who stayed on the farm or made ends meet in factory jobs, my dad always had a good position at the Water Works making sure that the pumps under his control never failed to push the life force through the pipes so the faucets would run and the toilets flush. He had nothing but bewilderment when I told him I had no intention of following into the engineering arena. I think he would have been raptured on the spot if I would have gone in that direction and become a designer of bridges or hydroelectric plants. But alas, it was not meant to be.

A son who would pursue a degree in linguistics and literature was probably as disappointing to him as a ballet dancer would have been to a homophobic high school football coach in the 1950s and 60s. But that was a long time ago and he has been gone many years. We were always two flukes with little common identity. I like to think he simply had no interest in my world, but as years went by I suspect he was so uncomfortable and so far out of his comfort zone that he would never let himself cross into my foreign land which in his opinion was an indulged cesspool of suspect abstract notions.

When Bruni was asked about his transformative educational moment, he thought for a moment before explaining it had come in an undergraduate class on King Lear where he heard “the rawness and majesty of emotion” as the befuddled king says three words to Cordelia, the truest of his three daughters, as she slips away because of his bullheaded stubbornness and vanity: “Stay a little.” Bruni acknowledges that some would never see such a moment as anything memorable and certainly not transformational. Such critics would fathom no reason to even be in such a class let alone recognize what “value” one could get from reading such stuff if they were not bound for a career on the stage or in academia. These are the folk who link education solely in terms of careers and job security.

My own transformational educational moment came in the form of conflict with my father who was a life-long Republican who still believed in Richard Nixon long after Richard Nixon had given up believing in Richard Nixon. When Reagan became governor of California, Bruni points out that the future president “moved to slash spending for the University of California system and its eclectic menu of instruction, announcing in 1967 that taxpayers shouldn’t be ‘subsidizing intellectual curiosity’ and that ‘there are certain intellectual luxuries that perhaps we could do without.’” My father couldn’t have agreed more, while I couldn’t have disagreed more vehemently. We found ourselves at a vocal impasse, both strongly adhering to the certitude that defined us.

All this was going on right after I had graduated from university and this impasse was never resolved and eventually ripped the fabric of whatever remaining ties hung loosely between us. If he were alive today, we still wouldn’t have much to say to one another, since he would be on the Scott Walker bandwagon and would have fully endorsed the governor’s effort to change the University of Wisconsin’s mission statement so that the references to “search for truth” and the struggle to “improve the human condition” would be replaced by an expressed concern for “the state’s work force needs.”

The night before my father died from a stroke, I stayed with him in his hospital room. He was on a ventilator and was pretty much brain dead. That cold fact didn’t prevent me, though, from “talking” with him throughout the wee hours. I questioned him about our alienation and why he had chosen to align himself with such reactionary forces that saw education as somehow the enemy, even though he had grasped onto every opportunity available to better himself through education. Why had he derided the arts as folly and a waste of time and money? Why had he shut himself off to so much of the richness of life that made it all worthwhile. I wanted to say “Stay a little” longer. We can work this out. Sadly, I was only talking to myself.

Bruni certainly does not dismiss the need for all of us to be as well educated as possible in order to be as competitive as possible in an ever changing and challenging world. Obviously, no responsible parent or student can afford to be blind to “the employment landscape.” As Bruni points out, the “rightful” role of college can be viewed differently by reasonable people. The rub comes when we feel that higher education becomes a simple choice between two opposites—either a place where one spends time in order to gain the necessary utilitarian training to enter the work force or a utopian academic environment where learning is exalted for learning’s sake. Neither of these black and white answers provide a workable template for those who will inherit our world in the years to come.

Bruni has his own strong views, of course, and concludes by saying, “But it’s impossible to put a dollar value on a nimble, adaptable intellect, which isn’t the fruit of any specific course of study and may be the best tool for an economy and a job market that change unpredictably.” He goes on to say, “And it’s dangerous to forget that in a democracy, college isn’t just about making better engineers but about making better citizens, ones whose eyes have been opened to the sweep of history and the spectrum of civilizations.”

In conclusion, he returns to his professor who woke him to the joy of Shakespeare and much more by repeating again Lear’s words, “Stay a little.” As his mentor taught him, the words captured the fallen king’s hunger for connection and his tenuous hold on sanity and contentment. Bruni’s transformational moment was waiting to happen in this non-utilitarian class where his eyes were indeed opened to the “sweep of history and the spectrum of civilizations.”

Was this class a waste of time, simply a gambol in the fields of non-practical intellectual curiosity? Bruni doesn’t think so, nor do I. As he so simply puts it: “It transformed me.” In the end, he admits that maybe such classes are luxuries, but they’re also the steppingstones to a more aware, thoughtful existence. Stay a little.

Image: Philosophia et septem artes liberales, The seven liberal arts – Picture from the Hortus deliciarum of Herrad of Landsberg (12th century) via (public domain)

David Evans

I'm retired from another life and live in the mountains of eastern West Virginia with my muse Jody along with one remaining dog.  We've decided no more dogs and cats.  Losing them is just too painful. Being independent and no longer in the reins of someone else's driver, I now have the chance to revisit the many people and places that have enriched my life. The good folks at Wesleyan College in central West Virginia guided me to a graduate degree in fine arts in early 2018.  My plan is to use some of the skills I learned from two years in this creative writing program to tell my story.