Letter to the editor: A response to "categorizing liberal arts"
Last week the Orient published an editorial on the current state of liberal arts at Bowdoin, spurred by a campus-wide email from President Rose. The editors quoted me as a prop in their argument, contending we need a broader definition of the liberal arts that encompasses science and pre-professional disciplines in addition to the humanities.
The argument is so absurd that even the editors must not believe it. To call the humanities prestigious and everything else marginalized is to imply that classics and sociology are standard bearers of social worth, while biology and computer science are tragically sidelined as fruitless pursuits. Fast forward to Thanksgiving in a few weeks to reveal the preposterousness of this claim. After your distant uncle hears of your newly declared major, he’ll only say one of these two things: “Classics major, little Johnny? My, what are you going to do with that?” or “Classics major, little Johnny? How pragmatic! That industry is taking off! Pass the stuffing.” Even the editors argue that Bowdoin’s value lies in its ability to teach economics differently because students can exercise creativity and critical thinking, presumably because they have learned these skills in the humanities. The distinction of traditional liberal arts and scientific, pre-professional areas resurfaces, with the latter particularly great because the former imbue them with a humanizing aura.
Here the editors are right. Bowdoin uses the liberal arts as a way to cultivate its marketable image. In the halls of the admissions office, a guide might report to prospective students that we put a unique spin on pre-professional subjects because we focus so heavily on the humanities—we can study how the market works while also reading Dante, and so we produce better economists. (I doubt any admissions reps have said the converse.) And we tend to uphold this image. How many Bowdoin graduates wear a badge of pride for having doubled majored in economics and gender and women’s studies? How many consultants, lawyers and bankers wistfully think back to their honors projects or senior seminars in German or Africana studies? Or, from the other side, how many current studies feel the pressure to balance humanities courses with more overtly pre-professional ones?
The humanities themselves aren’t worth much on the résumé, but they do add a nice sheen to the whole package. For instance, because of our liberal arts training, we can think critically about some bond trading, or even be creative in the boardroom. The critical thinking, curiosity, and “cross-discipline dialogue” that Bowdoin encourages as idealized pursuits are really just ways of marketing ourselves for the initial job hunt and our professional careers thereafter. What seems to be an environment for pursuing academic interests is really a boot camp for entry-level jobs and professional graduate schools.
Now we are witnessing the corporatization of the university itself. What Bowdoin provides us for the humble cost of $65,590 per year is a brand, surely a potent brand given its elite status, but a brand nonetheless. The College needs to maintain that brand in order to hold currency in the corporate world. It should come as no surprise that the freedom to think critically, to learn for learning’s sake and to be imaginative occurs alongside a campaign to advance, in President Rose’s words, “purpose, culture, opportunity, and innovation” or “to enhance the ‘quantitative literacy’ of our students.” Bowdoin’s liberal arts cannot protect us from becoming professionalized zombies, crunching numbers all day, working an unfulfilling nine to five shift, or whatever—they instead help us acclimate to the prospect.
Craig A. Comen ’12