A Liberal Arts Education

visitspartanburg.com

My husband and I attended our only child’s graduation on May 14. She graduated cum laude  with a bachelor’s degree in music from a small liberal arts college. People ask me, they ask my husband, they ask her, what is she going to do with that degree? It’s not very practical, is it? I suppose that depends on what value one puts on a solid liberal arts education.

I put great value on it, but I find that my standard explanation of the value of a college education — a liberal arts education teaches a person how to think — falls flat, even to my own ears. Therefore, I was delighted to encounter David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College. The author of the modern classic Infinite Jest eloquently defends that old cliche and renewed confidence in my belief that what my daughter learned by earning her degree is so much more than training for a career–it has ushered her into a lifetime of thinking, and choosing, for herself.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from the speech, followed by a link to a youtube video of it in its entirety (audio only). I encourage you to listen to the whole thing–well worth the 22 or so minutes and so relevant to our time.

“Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.”

“I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.”

“…if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.”

“Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it. This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship. Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshiping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.

“If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly….Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.”

“And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving…. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.”

“The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death. It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us….”

The complete speech

 

 

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Chicago Follow Up

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The Bean–Chicago (chicagotraveler.com)

Finally getting back to my blog after a busy, busy spring break and catching up with my classes. I wanted to take some time to talk about some of the great books, monographs, white papers and other materials I collected while I was in Chicago. Here’s just a few of the things I brought back for my colleagues and me:

  • Understanding Cultural Diversity in a Complex World by Dr. Leo Parvis. I went to Dr. Parvis’s session on cultural diversity and it was quite inspiring. Dr. Parvis shows what dedication and enthusiasm can do. He has built up the cultural diversity at his college–Dunwoody Community College in Minnesota–from practically nothing to its current healthy mix of cultures. His book examines some of his most successful ideas.
  • Toward a New Ecology of Student Success: Expanding and Transforming Learning Opportunities Throughout the Community College by Dr. Jim Rigg. I went to Dr. Rigg’s session mainly out of curiosity since I entered the monograph competition that I had applied for and he won. He sure deserved to! His monograph is a well-researched and persuasive argument for “The Emerging/Transformative Cognitive Frame” (9) approach to student learning that he claims will lead students “toward becoming life long learners” (10). On improving retention, Riggs says, “Numerous studies on improving persistence rates and increasing student success point out the importance of having a rigorous academic curriculum and an engaging and nurturing campus environment” (7). So much of what he says in the books echoes my own views and the views of many of my colleagues. It’s nice to have validation as well as numerous great ideas I hope to share with our president before too long.
  • Bread and Roses: Helping Students Make a Good Living and Live a Good Life by Dr. Terry O’Banion, President Emeritus of the League for Innovation in Community Colleges. This excellent monograph makes the case for what the author calls “Essential Education,” one that combines the best of Liberal Arts education (the rose) with Workforce education (the bread). He says, “We need a practical liberal arts and a liberal career education” (25). One of my favorite quotes in the book comes from Tyton Partners, an educational advisory firm in Boston, “Foundational, lifelong skills, such as critical thinking, teamwork and collaboration, and problem solving are climbing to the top of employers wish lists [….] Ultimately, integration in this area should bridge academic and applied education and skills expectations across institutions” (24). Excellent and informative reading with practical steps for implementing an Essential Education.
  • Numerous white papers, briefs and monographs from the Community College Research Center at Cornell University. A few of the titles are
    • “Using Technology to Reform Advising: Insights from Colleges” I met and talked to the young man who wrote this white paper, Jeffrey Fletcher.
    • Track Transfer: New Measures of Institutional and State Effectiveness in Helping Community College Students Attain Bachelor’s Degrees by Davis Jenkins and John Fink
    • “Improving Assessment and Placement at Your College: A Tool for Institutional Researchers” by Clive R. Belfield
    • “What We Know about Online Course Outcomes” by Shannon Smith Jaggers, et, al.
    • “Increasing Access to College-Level Math: Early Outcomes Using the Virginia Placement Test” by Olga Rodriguez
    • “What We Know About Guided Pathways” by Thomas Bailey, et al.

These are just a few of the materials I gathered on my recent trip to the League for Innovation in Community College’s Conference in Chicago. It was a great conference. I look forward to sharing this material with my colleagues when we all get a breather. Might not be until after grades are turned in.

Guest Blog–Zoe Carpenter of The Nation

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (postgazette.com)

Discouraging news today as the war on liberal arts, especially the study of literature, continues. Let’s make it possible for students not to be challenged or stretched by their education. Path of least resistance to a meaningless piece of paper. What are the hardest subjects? Let’s make it possible for students to just skip those bugbears.

It’s just getting worse folks.

I used to think that people in power just didn’t understand how writing literary analysis helps to lead  students into higher levels of thinking. Now, I’m not so sure. Could it be that the powers that be don’t want students to move into levels of higher thinking? Thinking people, after all, are much harder to control, aren’t they?

Oh, well, I must go back to grading my American Literature I and British Literature II course work and developing practical, yet exciting, exercises to help my students learn active reading and deeper research skills while I still have a chance.

Lord, I’m just too tired to deal with it today, so I’ll let Zoe Carpenter speak for me through an article from 2015.

http://www.thenation.com/article/how-right-wing-political-machine-dismantling-higher-education-north-carolina/

And another great article from Dr. Loretta Jackson-Hayes, a chemistry professor at a liberal arts institution:  https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2015/02/18/we-dont-need-more-stem-majors-we-need-more-stem-majors-with-liberal-arts-training/

 

Herman Melville, Lincoln’s Inn and Serendipity

Lincoln’s Inn–London (photo courtesy of Honourable Society of Lincoln’s Inn)

One of the things I love doing as a teacher is creating opportunities to become a student again. It renews the love of learning that is at the heart of my profession but sometimes gets lost under the mind-numbing bureaucratic tasks and pointless political pandering that has become so much a part of what it means to be an educator.

It’s at times like these that I most need to remember how exciting it is to learn something new, to read and study a work I’ve never encountered before, to visit places I’ve never been. My trip to London in the fall of last year provided me with many such opportunities.

Like the day I discovered Lincoln’s Inn.

I say discovered because I hadn’t gone looking for Lincoln’s Inn. I didn’t know it was there. I didn’t know anything about it. I certainly didn’t know that a month later I would be writing a lesson on Herman Melville for my new online American Literature I class and encounter Lincoln’s Inn once again.

It happened this way:

I woke up the first day that I was alone in London, finally free to do some serious walking and exploring. I planned out a trip that I had been longing to take ever since I developed a sample travel project for my British Literature II class several years ago. I decided to walk from my hotel in Russell Square to the Sir John Soane Museum at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Sir John Soane was a famous and wealthy Regency Era architect who designed the Bank of England and other famous landmarks, including his own house that he willed to his country.

Not knowing how long it would take me to walk there, I sat out rather early, clutching my google map instructions tightly in my hands. I made quick work getting there, too quick in fact. The museum was not yet open. With more than 20 minutes to wait, I decided to cross e street to Lincoln’s Inn Fields and walk around. Although it is a beautiful little park with its trees at their peak of Autumn foliage, I still had about 15 minutes to spare after walking the perimeter.

I decided to explore just a little further, and noting the street names began to head towards the most interesting brick building. As I approached, I realized that there were other similar buildings. Then, I passed through what looked to be a very old tower gate, and I realized I was in some sort of compound–beautifully landscaped and tended–the large main building almost like a church with beautiful stone accents and stained glass windows. I saw that there was a library  in the building and got a hint to its use when I saw a man traditionally dressed in barrister’s robes walking up the sidewalk towards the building.

I returned to the Morton Hotel after many more wonderful adventures, including the Sir John Soane Museum that I finally got to see (it was magnificant), an outdoor art display by Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy of Arts (incredible), lunch at a classic London Pub (tasty onion and mushroom pie) and a trip to the British Museum (I love that place). Even though I visited the British Museum on my first trip to London, I went to rooms I didn’t get to see that first time–my favorite being the Ancient European room and the clock room.

After a bite to eat from the little Tesco down the street and a hot shower, I settled in to find out what exactly that incredible building was. I quickly discovered that what I had been looking at and admiring was none other than Lincoln’s Inn, one of the four Inns of Court, which are the professional organizations for all barristers in England and Wales. I researched and read until late in the night, fascinated and excited to learn something new that would help me read, study and teach more effectively as well as humbled, feeling that I, as a teacher of British literature, should have known more about these things already.

When I returned home, I immediately found ways to incorporate what I had learned in my British Literature I class. That goes without saying, but I had no idea how my experience of discovering Lincoln’s Inn would enhance my teaching in American Literature until I read Melville’s “A Paradise of Bachelors.” The setting is one of the Inns of Court where the main character in this highly autobiographical story goes walking through the streets of London just as I did and is impressed with the beauty and grandeur of the grounds around the Temple Bar, just as I was.

IT lies not far from Temple-Bar.

Going to it, by the usual way, is like stealing from a heated plain into some cool, deep glen, shady among harboring hills.

Sick with the din and soiled with the mud of Fleet Street — where the Benedick tradesmen are hurrying by, with ledger-lines ruled along their brows, thinking upon rise of bread and fall of babies — you adroitly turn a mystic corner — not a street — glide down a dim, monastic way flanked by dark, sedate, and solemn piles, and still wending on, give the whole care-worn world the slip, and, disentangled, stand beneath the quiet cloisters of the Paradise of Bachelors. Sweet are the oases in Sahara; charming the isle-groves of August prairies; delectable pure faith amidst a thousand perfidies: but sweeter, still more charming, most delectable, the dreamy Paradise of Bachelors, found in the stony heart of stunning London.

Melville’s description spoke to my experience so completely. His observations so piquant that I immediately found renewed admiration for this, one of the greatest of American writers.

“Found in the stony heart of stunning London.”

It’s Worth It

Just looking purely pragmatically, it is still worth getting a four-year college degree. The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the higher the degree level, the lower the unemployment rate and the higher the median wages, with the exception of professional degrees garnering higher wages on average and lower unemployment than a Phd. The chart below shows the 2014 statistics:

More and more, however, I hear people, including former students and fellow educators, voice how working towards a four-year degree is virtually a waste of time and money.  I couldn’t disagree more. Even if a person never works in her or his degree field, the skills, life experience and connections made will not only help a person be more employable at a higher rate of pay, but can also help that person be a better informed partner, parent and citizen.

Of course, any acquired skills must be applied. Those who feel entitled to work their dream job at a high rate of pay soon upon graduation are never likely to feel that their education was “worth” anything. Also, there are many who do not get four-year degrees who have meaningful, prosperous careers. I know because my husband is one of them, although his time in training is comparable to a four-year degree in many ways.

I, on the other hand, have worked in my major field of study, English education, for most of my career, yet I have had the experience of not being able to find a teaching job. It was when my husband John was receiving his ultrasound training at Aultman Hospital in Canton, Ohio. Before moving to Ohio I had applied, tested for and been granted a 8-12 English and German teaching certificate. I had spent most of my last year teaching at Armuchee and Coosa High Schools in Rome, Georgia, applying for teaching jobs without a single bite.

We had saved enough money that I didn’t have to work, but things were going to be pretty tight if I didn’t land at least a low-paying position. I did have one interview at a high school, and although I don’t remember much about it, I do remember getting the impression that this little ole southern gal didn’t have a snowball’s chance getting a teaching job in Canton.

So I started looking outside of the education arena into places where my writing and teaching skills might be of use-copy editor, day-care worker, teacher assistant, tutor, but nothing doing. Then, one day I was looking through the want ads and saw that there was a position open for a job trainer at Goodwill Industries, Inc. The ad said that a background in education was a plus, so I called and set up an interview.

The very nice man who interviewed me was the vocational rehabilitation coordinator, Marc Manheim. He asked me about my educational background and also was interested in what kind of work I did unrelated to my degree. My list was long: Day care worker, cafeteria line worker, custodian, groom and exercise girl at an Arabian horse farm, riding instructor, restaurant hostess, dishwasher and secretary. I got the job.

While my experience working in the service industry was invaluable, I found that my teaching skills were absolutely necessary to be successful in my work. As a job trainer I was required to work side by side with my clients, helping them do the job and keep up their rate of production as they were learning the job and then slowly back away and help the client become more and more self-sufficient until I was not needed any more.

As a result I found myself doing many of the tasks I did as a classroom teacher, including mastering the skills I was going to teach my clients, creating a daily plan (in essence a lesson plan), instructing my clients in the numerous skills needed for their work as well as social skills, assessing their progress and the effectiveness of my instruction, then altering my instructional methods and re-assessing.

Because of my experience and the experience of as many as one-third of college graduates according to one study, who do not get jobs in their major area, I can better advise my current students and encourage them to study what they love, learn how to work hard and apply what they learn, developing dedication and tenacity.

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The park in Canton, Ohio, where I used to walk and jog.

Do that and they won’t need to worry about getting a job. They will either find one, it will find them, or they will create one for themselves.

Again, No Time But Must Post Something

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Mock Propaganda Poster Inspired by Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (Pinterest)

I’m in the midst of grading my brains out here at the end of the semester, but I don’t want to let any more time go by without posting something because the current state of liberal arts education, especially at the community college level in my state, demands it. Thank goodness there are others who feel the way I do. So until I’m able to do some more research, I’m posting this great article by Gary Saul Morson, professor of Slavic Languages and Literature at Northwestern University.

As a literature instructor I was a bit taken aback at first, and a little insulted, but then I read on, and he has some great things about the importance of college level literature studies as well as sensible ways to engage students in literature classes.

Article by Gary Saul Morson from Commentary Magazine

BON VOYAGE!

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Professional development–It means different things to different people, I suppose, but in my mind, I will soon be experiencing the most wonderful professional development a teacher of British literature could ask for. I’m going to England! One of the highlights of the trip will be seeing Benedict Cumberbatch performing the leading role in Hamlet at the Barbican in London.

The timing is perfect because while I am there, seeing Hamlet live, my students will be reading Hamlet and watching a movie version of it. I wish I could take them with me, but I plan to do a video pre and post show in front of the Barbican and take as many pictures and videos as I can to use in my British literature classes.

I also plan to use my experiences to continue to refine the major capstone project in my online literature classes–the literary travel project that I have discussed in previous blogs. I have created sample literary travel projects, and now I can test out my own literary travel plans to further refine those samples, as well as the project directions, and help my students get the most out of their major research project.

Keeping up with all of my classes, seated and online, will be a challenge, but I thought one way to stay in touch with them, and with anyone who is interested in the value of international travel as professional development for faculty. will be interested in my blog posts over the week–STARTING ON FRIDAY, OCTOBER 23!