The Liberal Arts in Action


“Woe is the English major, forever doomed to live in a hovel, unable to get out from under her student debt. That’s the mantra of people questioning if families should be spending so much—and borrowing so much—to study in seemingly unmarketable fields.”

One day shortly after Thanksgiving, I took my brother, a junior in high school, into West Philadelphia to tour Penn’s campus. After sitting through the requisite information session and chatting up the mannequins on their admissions panel, my brother concluded that he didn’t much care for the school’s undergraduate college; instead, he was far more interested in Wharton and the business education that it offered him. Languages, social sciences, and humanities, he decided, were out. Marketing, accounting, and finance – as the most obvious path to a job after graduation – were what he wanted to study after high school.

At the dinner table that evening, our father greeted this self-discovery with a great deal of enthusiasm. As a lifelong marketer, he has long been skeptical of the value that a purely liberal arts education can add and believes that colleges ought to spend more time preparing their students for success in future, professional pursuits. In his eyes, a $240,000+ investment should beget a commensurate financial return later in life. That becomes rather difficult when you major in Gothic art, post-colonial photography, or – as the Archer joke goes – Austronesian piracy. Besides, the paper on Nietzsche, Freud, and the Enlightenment that I made him proofread my sophomore spring certainly wasn’t going to win a Pulitzer. What then was the point of spending four years and a small fortune torturing yourself with the erudite?

Nor is my dad alone in this belief. Lately, it seems that many parents and students alike are emphasizing the importance of a rigorous professional education at the expense of its more liberal alternative. A recent Bloomberg article summed up this trend when it noted: “Woe is the English major, forever doomed to live in a hovel, unable to get out from under her student debt. That’s the mantra of people questioning if families should be spending so much—and borrowing so much—to study in seemingly unmarketable fields.”

Such assumptions seem only natural when the price of a four-year degree has risen nearly 500% in the same period that American wages have remained comparatively stagnant. For the student of the twenty-first century, the opportunity costs of studying the “unmarketable” have simply become too high to risk their future earnings on the frivolity of the liberal arts. It is little wonder, then, why more and more high school graduates are fleeing the likes of Voltaire and Cicero for the economic assurances of Porter’s Five Forces and marketing’s 3C’s.

In response to this trend, many liberal arts colleges have gone on the offensive and have commissioned a series of studies that seek to demonstrate their merit for a new generation of aspiring students. Early last year, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (of which Dartmouth is a proud member) published a paper arguing that a traditional education is still in fact “worth it.” Its argument? In the long run, the liberal arts graduate tends to earn just as much as his more professionally-trained peers. In some industries, he earns even more.

While it is reassuring to know that we may one day bring home a bigger paycheck than our little brother who went to Wharton, such a defense of a liberal education can’t help but feel a bit unsatisfying to those who are already living it. The greatest strength of the AACU’s report is its ability to appropriate the dollars and cents mode of thinking that makes a professional education so appealing. But in relying on such an argument, this strength also becomes its greatest weakness: because the size of the annual bonus emerges as the main arbiter of educational quality, the liberal arts become little more than a professional degree in an ascetics’ robes and the uniqueness of its offerings go unstated.

As a believer in the merits of a traditional education, I’d like to think that my four years at Dartmouth have provided me with much more than an expanded earning potential. In fact, I’m sure that they have. As John Sloan Dickey explains in “Dartmouth Visited” (1956):

Why go to college? Well, I suppose you could get at the question [by noting that] every fellow is trying to create his life in the form of a pyramid. He’s trying to push that pyramid up just as high as he can push it in his job and in his personal relationships… How best can a man prepare to build that kind of pyramid? A liberal arts college like Dartmouth [believes] that the best way to begin is to get a broad foundation… out of the total wisdom that the human race has sweated out in its long history… so that [the individual man] can be made whole in both competence and conscience. A pyramid that is built with that kind of foundation is a more stable [one] that offers a man richer choices in fashioning a life that will best fit him.

Although nearly sixty years removed from the present, this description gets to the heart of what makes Dartmouth’s liberal education “valuable” in the twenty-first century: by providing students with a broad foundation upon which they can build their own life story, it supplies them with the skills and sentiments needed to be lifelong learners. Such a framework can be applied to everything from your occupation and your hobbies, to your family and your personal relationships as time goes on. For this reason, it can be described less as a course of study and more as a mentality that encourages thoughtful engagement with the surrounding world.

It is this way of thinking that the current issue of The Dartmouth Review is dedicated to. In its pages, our staff has provided commentary on a range of books that are relevant to its collective interests and academic studies. One writer leveraged his background as a Chinese language major and his recent terms in Beijing to review a book about the human side of that country’s economic rise. Another used his interest in rock and roll and twentieth century history to analyze a recent work about a founding member of The Rolling Stones. And another still took his personal perspectives as a graduating senior and applied them to a collection of writings by Marina Keegan.

In so doing, these reviewers not only produced a fascinating collection of literary commentary; they also represent the best of Dickey’s famous “pyramid.” By applying the “skills and sentiments” they have developed during their time at Dartmouth, they have brought the liberal arts mentality to the world around them in an example of traditional education’s “value” in the twenty-first century. We hope you enjoy reading the results as much as we enjoyed producing them.