Songs for the Struggling Artist


The Value of a Liberal Arts Education

There’s a really interesting conversation happening in the media these days about the value of a college education. From the Freakonmics show “Is College Really Worth It?” to The Economist article, “Is College Worth It” the worth of higher education is clearly on the table. The Federal Government is thinking about it, too. There’s a plan in the works to assess university education on affordability and value. Many people are trying to quantify what an education should be worth and judge institutions by whether they fulfill that promise. The stakes are high as Federal Funding hangs in the balance.

My alma mater has gotten in on the conversation early. As mentioned in a story on  Marketplace, the college is worried about the proposed measures of financial success of its alumni as a measure of value. It’s fighting for the place of Liberal Arts in the culture.

I find myself with mixed feelings about all this. I have great affection for my small elite liberal arts college. I believe in the values they’re discussing in the media and I am grateful for the role the college and those values have played in my life. What the college claims to do is exactly what it did for me and I value those skills. But I’m broke. And I wonder about the role Liberal Arts education has played in my broke-ness.

My small elite liberal arts education was expensive. At the time, it was the most expensive in the country. I was only able to go because of some extremely generous financial aid. When I was there, one half of the students basically paid for the other half.

It was a beautiful, rarefied place to learn. The atmosphere of the place encouraged deep thinking and analysis. It encouraged independence and challenging the status quo. We all left with a degree in Liberal Arts.  We all left with a lot of conversations about Truth and Beauty and literature and philosophy and history behind us.

What we didn’t leave with were jobs. Or desirable job skills. Which was fine at the time. We’d learned about something more important than money. Our values were marinated in philosophy and Art. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

My college prided itself on its uniqueness (slogan: We’re different, so are you.”) It attracted (and still attracts) people with an interest in independent thinking, people who are different, people who cluster at the margins of things. Studying there helped us develop our uniqueness. It trained us in individuality and independent thinking. As a rule, if there is a box, my fellow alumni and I are particularly skilled at thinking outside of it.

The problem is that, at the moment, all the money seems to be IN the box. I sometimes wish I’d gone to a place that trained me to think more conventionally – just so I could make some conventional dollars.

I started to think about all this after an alumni Holiday party where I encountered one alumna after another who was struggling with money and in the middle of a career transition. We all loved our alma mater but were a little mad at it too. There was a sense of “Shouldn’t we be seeing some financial return on our elite education?” Like, shouldn’t we be part of the elite having gone to the most expensive college in the country?

At some elite colleges, there is a pipeline. When you leave those institutions, you have a club membership, you have an introduction to the halls of power. Your degree can open doors. You go to Harvard, for example, you can go work with other folks from Harvard, whether in law or in comedy.

There is no such pipeline for us and maybe it’s because my fellow alumni didn’t go on to become investment bankers or politicians. They’re poets, philosophers, teachers, film-makers, journalists, musicians, theatre artists, visual artists, etc, (basically all the middle class jobs that are vanishing in the information/digital economy.) I think we partly chose the place because we were interested in those creative/academic lives – which is why I can’t blame the institution, as much as I’d like to.

I mean, I chose to work in Theatre. As Lewis Black said about theatre work in a recent podcast interview, “Crack whores make more money.” Theatre is what I studied and what I chose to pursue. So it’s my own fault, really. But I can’t help noting that if I’d studied Theatre at Yale, I’d have some worldly access that I don’t have with my degree. Is it the institution’s job to care for its alumni once they’re gone? Probably not.

But I also note that one of the hopes of elite liberal arts education as a whole is to transcend class, to give people a leg up the ladder. And it seems like, in my college’s case, the students who came in Low Income have remained Low Income and those who came in Middle Class have remained Middle Class and so on. And maybe the same thing is true at Yale. Maybe it’s NOT the Yale connection that opens doors but the socio-economic class that accompanies the student to Yale.

If that’s the case, then a measure that gauges economic success is really just a way to measure where people with money tend to go to school. It’s not so simple.

Would I have changed my elite liberal arts education? Nope. Not at all. It’s exactly what I wanted and it did all of the things it now claims to teach. The discomforting thing is how little those things seem to be valued out in the world. In a way, a liberal arts education is education for an ideal world. It educates aspirationally, almost as if people really cared about art and literature and philosophy.

I’d like to live in a world in which everyone were trained in thinking analytically, expressing ideas effectively, bringing innovation to things and thinking independently but, we live in a culture that seems to only care about money, that wants to measure what you learned by how much money you make, that wants to value people and experiences this way. A liberal arts education hopes that there will be some other measure out there – some other way of doing things and sometimes this means a major crisis in its students when we discover that no one really cares about our ability to analyze literature – and when we discover that all the things we loved and trained in are things that the culture has continued to devalue – artists, teachers, academics, etc.

Adjunct teachers around the country (who make up around 70% of faculty) make so little money that many of them have multiple other jobs. Adjuncts make peanuts. I know because I’ve been one. The most famous example was a beloved French teacher with decades of years of teaching at a college who died at 83 without health care or any sort of safety net. And my elite Liberal Arts College isn’t paying adjuncts any better than anyone else. Adjunct faculty are teaching students for pocket change, while the students are paying crazy amounts of tuition to learn from them.

And yet we persist. Because we love poetry. Or philosophy. Or whatever it is. And the college persists, in hope, I’d guess, that one day the world will organize its values a little differently.

Maybe in the future, when we are all artists, as Seth Godin suggests in Linchpin, our independent learning will start to pay out. No one knows. Meanwhile, if I were a parent, (I’m not, I can’t afford to be) I’d have big questions about where to send my child. To an elite liberal arts college where they will learn how to learn? Or to a college that might help them make a decent living when they’re done?  (Although, no guarantees now – I heard that there are so few law firm positions open that lawyers are waiting tables now, just like actors.)

I don’t have an answer for any of it. I wish that it weren’t an either/or situation – that the skills and values of a liberal arts college were so valued in the culture that everyone would come out of school and get PAID. And then a measure of how students do financially after going to school somewhere would be an actually sensible measure.

So, good luck, Federal Government, on your quest to figure out how to place value on all the colleges out there. You’ve got a hell of a task ahead of you.

 

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