3 things I learned at a liberal arts college

Thirty years ago I was nearing the end of my freshman year at a small liberal arts college. I often recall those days with fondness. An excitement for the future filled me. I have credited my undergraduate education for the person I have become (for better and worse). This evening I challenged myself to list the three most significant things I learned in college.

Immediately, I discarded knowledge of specific subjects. My memory for facts has never been good, though I do appreciate the extensive exposure to Western knowledge that the liberal arts provided me. That foundation has enriched my life immensely. Certainly this familiarity with the arts, history, literature, and the sciences should be one of the significant outcomes of a liberal arts education. But I’m seeking more structural forces that have factored into my life.

The first that comes to mind is that I learned how to write. (Of course,  someone out there will nitpick every flaw of this post.) I never planned on being an English major. Indeed, I struggled through most of those courses. And my interest in literature was never as strong as my love of history or current events. My freshman English teacher would call me into her office for much needed corrections on my grammar.  My notebooks from college are long gone, so I cannot easily reconstruct the amount or type of writing assignments. Yet, the quantity of essays required semester after semester provided intense practice in the skills of writing.

Writing is not just grammar but includes the critical thinking of peering through the layers of a text and then setting out a logical argument to form a finished composition. (I would only learn the real value of editing and revision much later.) Sewanee in the mid-1980s had a very writing intensive curriculum. Written essays also were emphasized in other disciplines. At times it seems like I had an essay due every week in one or the other of the five courses I took each semester. Practice may not make perfect, but it certainly improves one’s skills. But rarely do I remember the term papers. It’s the short and medium length essays that stand out, those assignments that called for either 500 words or 1,000-1,250 words. (In a sense, I learned to write blog postings before the medium existed.) All these writing assignments were reinforced by essay exams, which might be no more than an hour in class writing on one of three topics. It was the structure of the writing rather than the content that I have retained over the years. 

I already mentioned the second thing I learned, which falls under the often vague heading of critical thinking. Educators toss that term around as a desired learning outcome for just about anything, but often without specifying how to achieve it. I view critical thought as thinking beyond the surface to raise questions about why as much as how, especially when such questions are uncomfortable and challenge our beliefs and values.

The Sewanee English department of the 1980s focused on teaching a close reading of texts.  This heavy influence of New Criticism spread to the way I read works in other disciplines. It was only later, in graduate school and elsewhere, that I gained a real understanding of secondary literature. People often seem astounded when I remark that I never used a secondary source in any of the essays for my English courses. I can’t recall if secondary sources were forbidden but English professors certainly didn’t encourage undergrads to research the relevant scholarly literature. At that time, before the age of full-text databases and e-journals, access to a broad range of literary scholarship was limited. Perhaps lack of access necessitated the close reading assignments. But, when you must write a thousand words on a short story, then the result is that you really read that story.

The third thing: confidence in tackling challenging topics. A third-year foreign language requirement was the challenge for me, particularly since I was the odd student who never took a foreign language course in high school. So in my first semester of college I enrolled in Russian 101. That might have been idiotic of me to tackle the most challenging language taught there at the time. I ended up taking 8 courses in Russian. It’s a shame I’ve not made any use of it since graduating. But it’s there in the back of my mind, and I know I could essily brush up on the language and get back into Russian without a problem.

Yet, upon graduation with a superb liberal arts college I could not get a job. I recall a rejection letter from an employer that actually stated I had no skills. That was a bitter experience, particularly since 25% of my undergraduate education was financed through student loans and the payments were looming as I search for a job that was not in retail sales or some other barely above minimum wage position. After two years I was looking at the option of either the military or grad school.

My graduate school education as a librarian coincided with the popular emergence of the Internet. I had always considered myself a typical humanities person dragged kicking and screaming to the computer. It wasn’t an easy transition but I realized that I could develop marketable skills based on the Internet. I’ve had a good career as a librarian focused on Internet technologies. During a career change I even did well as a software developer despite never having taken a course in computer science.

It was those three things that I learned through the liberal arts that has enabled me to do so well with information technology, an area seemingly so far removed from the worlds of Faulkner and Tolstoy. 

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