The use of higher ed: Liberal arts and the career track

Joe Hogan

I have a variety of friends who, guided either by thoughtful prudence or deep wisdom, pursue both “practical” and “impractical” majors in college. The combinations they’ve chosen are numerous: journalism and biomedical science; philosophy and business; Spanish and biology; math and English; writing and chemistry. Despite the differences of their respective disciplines, each of these students straddles a line that has been drawn by others: the line between practical and impractical majors, useful and useless disciplines, career-oriented education and, well, not.

I will say very little about the questionable validity of this line of division; one of the only points now worth making concerns its dubious applicability to a constantly shifting job market. For example, in high school, I was told a major in business, or STEM was just about the one truly “practical” course of study in college. Only one teacher, the head of the foreign language department, said otherwise. Yet, we now find that great jobs can be had almost anywhere on the globe, including of course the U.S., if you speak two or three languages. Perhaps, then, the line between practical and impractical majors is drawn based to a certain extent on imagined job market conditions.

The issue I want to bring to light, however, concerns the effect of this dividing line on the kind of education offered at Grand Valley. Disregarding the question of its validity, the dividing line undoubtedly influences the educational attitudes of students, faculty, and administrators. Based on this line, students choose to enter certain majors, professors define the marketing strategy of their disciplines, and administrators establish the goals and direction of the university. In other words, departments compete for students based on this dividing line and students enter college with the line already in mind. As a result, if students choose a major immediately, their instinct is to rush through college so as not to accrue heavy debt and to evade classes that do not relate to their “practical” majors.

But does the “practical” approach to higher education resonate with the mission of our university? Grand Valley defines itself as a liberal arts institution, committed to teaching and forming students before producing research. Thus, it is evident that the administration in some way values the interdisciplinary approach to study, in which students, by taking a variety of courses in seemingly unrelated disciplines, become well-rounded thinkers. The virtue of this approach stems from its focus on the intellectual growth of each student in lieu of the trappings of operating as a major research institution.

Nevertheless, many students consider the liberal arts approach an impediment to their progress toward more practical ends: a career, a good starting salary, etc. And of course, the goal of having a stable career is not in any way misguided; quite the opposite, it would be foolhardy not to take such obviously practical ends into consideration. The issue, however, concerns a disconnect between theory and practice: in theory, the university provides each student a transformative education in the liberal arts; in practice, students shirk such a pursuit because it is not obviously useful or practical.

But there is an exception to the rule: the students who, by majoring in both “practical” and “impractical” majors, seem to have found a via media. These students, who study both philosophy and business, biomed and English, might do so for a number of reasons: they have a passion for both subjects; they want to reconcile the two; they just can’t for the life of them decide. Or maybe it’s that they recognize the importance of a liberal education and choose to major in an ostensibly “impractical” subject in order to reap the benefits it has on their intellect and character. I suspect, in any case, that these students have internalized a major premise of the liberal arts: that the use of an education has little to do with its practicality.

If Grand Valley is to succeed in its expressed mission, it ought to highlight the successes of such students. Otherwise, its mission in the liberal arts will for the majority of students remain unrealized.

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