by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
May 23, 2009
FEAR NOT, CLASS OF '09. KNOWLEDGE IS STILL POWER
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- If you're a liberal arts major, you've been probably been getting an earful as we head into the college commencement season. In the midst of the bleakest economic landscape in decades, you've been continually told that you'll have few prospects and that you should've majored in something practical.
So this goes out to all the liberal arts majors in the class of 2009. Don't let the sense of accomplishment that comes with getting your degree get ruined by the nay-sayers who think you've wasted your money studying English literature. Take heart in the words of author and college professor Michael Bérubé, who gave the commencement address at Marlboro College on May 17.
Bérubé, who teaches English at Penn State, first tried to calm the fears of the graduates. "I recently came across someone remarking that we've produced a lot of apocalyptic fantasies in the course of the past century, and they all tend to be pretty spectacular - nuclear catastrophes, ecological catastrophes, biological disasters, invasions from outer space, wars with self-aware supercomputers, and even a stray comet here and there. So, my friend said, 'if civilization winds up collapsing because of credit default swaps, I'm going to be really disappointed. It's terribly anticlimactic. We're not even going to get zombies.'"
But the end is not near, Bérubé said. This is only the turmoil that comes with being part of what he called "the most exciting, the most complex, and the most challenging century in human history."
He gave voice to the thought most English majors are thinking right now - does it make sense to get a liberal arts education in times like these? Well, when you consider that it was the business majors and economic majors that created a hideously convoluted and corrupt financial system that has brought the world to the brink of disaster, maybe a solid liberal arts education is exactly what's needed.
"The liberal arts teach people how to think deeply and reflectively about the good life, the good society, and the very idea of the 'good,'" said Bérubé. "The liberal arts acquaint us with the history of how humans have thought about such things, thereby giving us all a richer and more complex language in which to speak and with which to think. The liberal arts do their work by encouraging us to think of lifelong learning as an integral part of a good life, they encourage us to believe in the value of the examined life, and they encourage us to believe that nothing human should be alien to us. The liberal arts do that work by combating every kind of parochialism, reminding us by way of a plenitude of human counterexamples that any one of us might be wrong or only partially right."
But, Bérubé said, this sort of education is about more than understanding difference. It's also about problem-solving in "a century of profound political, intellectual, and moral challenges. We will be - indeed, we already are -- faced with conflicts between reason and faith, east and west, north and south. We need people who can think about complex human dilemmas in appropriately complex ways. We need people devoted to the idea of lifelong learning. We need people like you."
The world needs people who can think critically, communicate clearly and are unafraid to take on difficult, seemingly impossible problems. That's why a good education still has value. College shouldn't be a trade school. It should be a place to expand one's mind and fortify it for a lifetime of challenges. The people who are graduating this spring should have no fear of the future, for knowledge is still power and a well-educated man or woman still has limitless opportunities to succeed in this world.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for nearly 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at email@example.com. For extra added thrills, read his ongoing daily blog on The Harvard Classics.