Every so often a left-leaning publication will publish a thoughtful op-ed like Michael S. Roth’s Learning as Freedom (NYTimes September 6) in ideological defense of that wonderfully hippy-dippy “liberal arts education” the most of us received. Often, the writer of this op-ed IS Michael Roth; guy’s the current president of Wesleyan University and a vocal advocate for education reform. To make it plain, consider these two opposing viewpoints on the whole CONCEPT of what an education is supposed to do – there is one camp of thought that calls itself pragmatically bent, following a philosophy that children inevitably destined for low-paying jobs due to socioeconomic situation at birth should mainly be educated in fields like agriculture (ha) or basic industrial sciences. This is called “tracking” today, though according to Roth it’s old, originating in America with the Smith-Hughes Policy Act of 1917. Tracking is a system that’s since been criticized by people like home-boy for being inherently defeatist; if all the kids from Anacostia are trained for work at, say, the Mac factory (go with me here) because philosophy won’t be USEFUL to them, there’s really no hope that they’ll elect to transcend their social class. The other camp of educational thinking is the bleeding heart liberal artist, who will argue that “liberal learning introduces [students] to books and the music, the science and the philosophy that form disciplined yet creative habits of mind that are not reducible to the material circumstances of one’s life,” (Roth in the HuffPo, December 2008). If you camp in the second camp, you believe that learning is – at least to some extent – about enriching the soul and the mind. About becoming an individual person. About learning HOW to think, as opposed to what to DO. I think if you believe in a liberal arts education you’re optimistic about the capacity of young American minds to expand, and most of all you’re dreamy and wistful about what it’s like to be a human and have a brain. It’s not cut and dry. It’s not preordained. You’re free… or you could be.
And regardless of what you believe the government’s job as regulator and bankroller for these two separate schools (ha again) of often public education might be, I’d bet my library card the most of you did receive the luxury of that contemplative, Rumi-Sartre-Kant-kind of learnin’. You went to arts school! And with your degree/expanded mind you can think in magnificent riddles and make polyrhythmic fourth-world music to your heart’s content! I’m sorry. I’m finding more and more often this disdainful echo in my voice when I speak of Us, of my generation of the artsy-fartsy idealists trying to resuscitate New York for the broke, bold and beautiful. Yet I love Us, and I’m not bitter, and I have only people to thank for the life I’m living. But consider the political/economic climate – it is so very dry and arid. In this place, for the young, there seems to be but the smallest hope. So few of my liberally educated friends wanted to watch the DNC convention, others don’t plan to vote in 2012. Everyone is poor and it isn’t very glamorous. Now no one – and I repeat NO ONE – seems to be hankering in the aftermath for that Automotive 101 class that might have lain their paths clear and given real fire to their political beliefs, made them a CITIZEN in a conventional and old-school sense of the word, but there is something about we the dreamers and the music-makers who presently lack…a practical conviction. A sense of or belief in the real and concrete. Is this what I mean to say? It might be what I mean to say. Given, there are a lot of reasons – not excuses, but reasons – for my generation’s particular swansong of political apathy. Nonetheless…
Take acting school. You go there and you feel and feel and feel, and when you emerge you very well may not have an agent, may not even know how to get an agent. Such skills are not what you studied. So you work in the service industry and curse the sky and tell everyone you’re auditioning. But oh, your soul is definitely enriched. You’re a conversation wizard. Most days remain peachy and un-lamentable because the kind of thinking your liberally-educated mind is capable of lends itself to the assured certainty that the world will just present a path for you, you will be able to forge ahead with a whole new template for success than that which your parents followed. You will follow the heart that four years and $200,000.00 dollars made wide and hopeful. It is too early to tell, really, about the ‘what-then’s’ and where are they now’s. Everyone’s got the best of intentions and egos and so nights burn quick in dive bars, you waxing poetical about anything at all, not (even?!) watching the news on the TV half-obscured by someone’s head.
This is just a hypothetical, mind.
Another Adelphean and I had lunch and talked about the future last week. We talked of semi-secret dreams for work in fields other than those we studied in school, and we dreamt of higher-higher education, and we fretted about the choices we’d need to make to follow these fresher dreams, and she told me (okay, it’s Gemma. There goes the veil) that perhaps our generation’s task is to redefine that elusive “educational success,” to a point. We talked about becoming Renaissance Women, janes of all the trades we could touch and hold – we might be Senators, singers, writers, teachers, comedians, journalists, all of it in due time. We talked about self-education as contra to the money we don’t currently have to spend on graduate school, and we talked with an awareness that certain practicals were in absentia at the table. This still somehow felt like an accomplishment to me.
Dear Michael Roth, you fount of wisdom, I agree. Thank you for defending this right to wonder. Dear everyone else, don’t forget: there are ways in which the well-constructed, thoroughly-researched, mordantly-funny, inevitably-award-winning argument might be made that it’s actually kind of hard to be free. *
(i.e, you are free to comment with ‘Tough Shit, rich kid.’ I’d be mad, but you’re allowed)
*image courtesy of a very cheeky http://www.quickmeme.com/meme/35jmn6/