Do I Have to Learn This?
Reflections on the Liberal Arts Symphony
“Most of the things we learn in our educational careers will never help us in real life and are ultimately a waste of time and energy. I only take those classes because they are required in order to advance, get your degree, and do something that actually matters even though the things you learned will not apply to that field in any way, shape, or form.”
–Anonymous Comment on Student Survey, Fall 2001
I have been haunted by the above quotation for years now. I keep it in a desk drawer within easy reach. As a professor of history, I consistently ask myself what this college student asked: “why must this be learned?” It is a valid question; a valid question asked not only by students in a history course, but students in mathematics, various sciences, literature, humanities, and multiple other studies within what the academic community terms “the liberal arts.”
A “liberal arts” education has been variously defined. All too often, students in most colleges and universities have been guilty of deriding the liberal arts core courses as simply “those course youhave to take before you begin completing your major academic program.” Even reading of the liberal arts curriculum as a set of “required” or “core” courses leaves the connotation that these courses are simply a collective hoop for the student to jump through, and nothing more.
Even academicians, individuals who devote their professional lives to the pursuit of knowledge within a given academic discipline, are sometimes skewed in their views of a liberal arts education. Most go to great lengths in attempting to defend and justify the teaching of their respective disciplines. It is their livelihood; one would expect nothing less. Yet, in defending a specific academic subject, professors and teachers can become just as near-sighted in approaching a higher education as the anonymous student quoted above.
What each academic discipline is part of—be...