The ideal liberal arts major

Life experience is necessary in deeply understanding the value in a liberal arts degree.

by Trent M. Kays

Life is tough.

When I was a child, my grandfather told me stories of when he served in the U.S. Air Force. One story I vividly recall is how he learned the value of newspapers as insulation. At the time, the Air Force only gave him one thin wool blanket, and he used to get cold at night and couldn’t sleep.

Then, he discovered that by stuffing his bed with newspaper, he would stay warm. It’s certainly a lesson in experience — one not exactly found in the pages of great tomes.

It is the issue of experience that is at the heart of 21st century workplaces. Employers want educated workers who also have experience; however, most workers can’t build experience without having a job. The cycle seems perpetual and disheartening. There are some things that you can only fully understand by doing.

This is something I learned when I was younger. It was only through working with my hands that I learned what I did — and didn’t — want to do with my life. I appreciate the fastidiousness of manual labor, but I always understood my life as one drawn to mental labor.

When people consider what an ideal liberal arts major might look like, they often don’t consider brickwork as an essential part of that major. But, perhaps it should be.

Too often we romanticize liberal arts majors into something that simply doesn’t exist anymore. When I speak to some liberal arts majors, they are quixotically romantic, waxing poetic about the Penguin Classics of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” under their arm.

 Don’t get me wrong; I love classic literature as much as the next person. I believe it can link us to a different perspective and context of the world.

But sometimes, I think that the love of literature so many liberal arts majors exhibit is lacking because it isn’t backed by rough materiality. It’s not about the physical coarseness of life. Tragically, I’m not sure it’s about much reality. Mark Edmundson, a professor of English at the University of Virginia, suggested in the Chronicle of Higher Education last month that the English major “is a path to becoming a human being.”

 Apparently, other majors are not worthy of humanity.

The tone of Edmundson’s piece is typical of a head-in-the-clouds mentality, separated from the coarse and challenging nature of life. While Edmundson might believe the “ideal English major” to be one where some become human and others do not, it is starkly contradicted by the realities of life, where humanity is forged through experience.

Life is hard, and it can be a terrible experience at times. The English major does many things. It’s important to the liberal arts curriculum, and it does clue people into some richness of human experience. However, the romanticizing of a major does not help combat the realities of the workforce and the world.

Coupled with experience, studying English can be more fruitful. While I never was an English major per se, I do understand the indisputable importance of liberal arts.

That importance, however, can only fully be understood in contrast to something else. For me, it was manual labor. I did brickwork, concrete pouring, woodwork, landscaping and a whole bunch of other things before, during and after college. The perspective it gave me was tantamount to revelation. It changed my life.

So, while Jane Austen’s work changed others, smashed fingers, blinding sweat and immense physical exhaustion changed me. Certainly, I was changed by my liberal arts education. I read Plato, debated ethics and wrote treatises about little-known authors; I still did all this after I gained perspective on the world, and it was necessary for me to truly appreciate and understand the liberal arts.