Finding the Value in a Liberal Arts Education

It’s 11 p.m. A beautiful autumn night just at the cusp of October. The wind blows, and with it, the auburn and amber embers of the trees dance through the chilly air. Oh, how it would feel to dance among them and fill my lungs with the crisp wisps of nature.

But I’m in Bapst. And I’m struggling to commit to memory the difference between an alpha and a beta glycosidic bond. So I’ll be here for a while.

At such a time, it’s easy to find yourself asking: What’s the point? Who cares? Certainly I’ll NEVER need to know any of the information I’m learning in general biology. Seldom will a potential employer hand me a scantron sheet at an interview and ask me to whip out my trusty ol’ No. 2 pencil. So why am I doing it?

Maybe I should just be in CSOM. Then I’d be taking classes about Excel spreadsheets. Perhaps it’d be a bit dry, but at least I’d be learning PRACTICAL skills in life. If I was in CSOM, I would absolutely know why I was there—to prepare myself for the business world, and get a good job. I would have a definite purpose. I would never need to think about it.

On the first day of English class during my sophomore year of high school, my teacher, Mr. Dowd, asked the class a question: Why are we here? And every student agreed that we were there because of truancy laws. After being pushed a little, though, we found that we were also there to we could get good grades. Mr. Dowd asked why. Well, to get into a good college, of course. Why? To get a good job. Mr. Dowd continued with his boyish manner of questioning. We want good jobs to make lots of money. He answered the next one for us: “You want to make lots of money so that you can have a nice house and a nice car and attract a hot wife.” The point of the conversation was to try to give us a little perspective on what we were doing and to make the joke that we were reading Huck Finn in order to get laid.

Sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in the rat race of academia and not really question what you’re doing. In school, life is filled with purpose—as long as you don’t think too hard. I have to study right now because I have a test tomorrow and I need to get a good grade on it. After I take that test I have homework to do that will also be graded. After that I have to catch up on reading for my graded class discussion next week. Every day there are classes to attend and there is work to be done, so there is always some sort of purpose. At no point are you ever required to remind yourself why you are doing these things.

If I were to follow Mr. Dowd’s advice, then I probably should switch over to CSOM. On average, according to Boston College’s own post-graduation plans survey, business students make more money out of college (the median starting salary for CSOM students is $60,000, compared to $45,000 for MCAS students), and more money means completing the apparent life objective sooner. I’m just wasting my time studying biology and philosophy—I need expensive cars as soon as possible!

In fact, why stop there? BC undergrad tuition is upward of $50,000. According to Business Insider, on average, college graduates have earned an average starting salary of $27,000, compared to a $42,000 figure for trade school grads. Why not take my tuition money, invest most of it, and then go to trade school? It’s cost effective, I’ll be making money, and I’ll have a PRACTICAL education.

But maybe there’s more to life than that. You may never be asked about Shakespeare or calculus in a job interview, but that doesn’t mean these things don’t have value. My dad was a little discomforted by the idea of me taking a class in the history of Japanese visual art—because on one hand, who cares? But on the other, that is exactly the type of class that enriches a student. A class like that affects a young mind in a way that a spreadsheet never could. Drilling the application of Microsoft Excel into someone’s head does little in the way of exposing them to beautiful art, critical thinking skills, or a new perspective on the world. Learning these “practical” skills is equivalent to teaching a monkey to use a screwdriver—he may be damn good at tightening a screw, but he has no idea why he’s doing it. Teach a monkey about the nuances of Japanese visual art, however, and perhaps he gets hired as Apple’s new director of aesthetics.

My point is that a liberal arts education is important. If everyone were to just learn the basic skills needed to get them into a Fortune 500 company, the world would be full of drones. Plus, let’s be honest, they can teach you to use Excel on the job. A liberal arts education does more than give you the quickest route to the money, the house, and the cars—it teaches students new ways to think about the world, and you can’t put a price on that.

Actually, you can. Apparently it’s more than $50,000 a year. I wonder if any trade school offers some poetry classes.

Featured Graphic by Nicole Chan / Graphics Editor