A Tribute to a Liberal Arts Education
There is so much talk and emphasis on Science Technology Engineering Math (STEM) education that the Fine Arts/Liberal Arts are being eliminated or downgraded in many schools and colleges. I fail to understand why we can't have ALL of it--STEM, literature, languages, music, art--all the creative elements that make our lives more enjoyable--and for some people make life worth living. What follows is a piece I wrote a few years ago at the request of the English department at Ball State University. They asked me to write a blog piece and answer the question, "Why Study English?" Here it is--something to think about as we begin a new year. Let's let the Liberal Arts--all of them--bring us some joy and pleasure.
I’ve always been a good student. When I graduated from high school, I really wanted to go to college, but my dad wasn’t sure that I needed to, so we compromised. He picked my school—Purdue—a great choice for me, as it turned out, and he also picked my major, elementary education. Not a good choice. I would have been a barely adequate elementary teacher, so I changed my major to Secondary Education/English and graduated four years later with many, many semester hours in literature and writing and linguistics and rhetoric and went on to spend 30 wonderful classroom years mostly at the high school level, having taught all secondary grade levels and loving it. While my undergrad degree was at Purdue--in English, not Education--I studied for my MA degree at Ball State. I taught freshman composition in the BSU English department as a TA while doing my own course work. I had some great teachers at Purdue and at Ball State and I am grateful for the time they took with me.
Why major in English? There are many reasons. You’ll know more than most people doing crossword puzzles. You will understand allusions to literature in ordinary conversation, news, plays, movies--conversations that people who are not avid readers may not get. But most importantly—and this is VERY important—you will learn to read critically and write clearly. You will have to read great books, short stories, poetry—all genres—and you will LOVE reading them. You will write—and you will become very good at it, too. Your speech and your writing will become more persuasive, and, via your communication skills, you will be able to become a leader.
People may want to know what you’ll do with an English major, and the easy answer is that you will become language literate in a society that lacks many of those skills, and that ability can be money in the bank in this culture where we write MORE than before, both because of and in spite of technology. It’s also true that an English major is great preparation for law school or for many graduate programs. There are also many opportunities in areas of corporate and non-profit communication once you have technology experience--and all English majors have technology experience. I used to tell my students to take all the writing classes they could. They were already readers, or they wouldn’t even consider becoming an English major, so I encouraged them to become first-rate writers, too. Excellent writers understand the concept of "audience." They learn to be persuasive. They learn to love the English language and to use it correctly.
While I loved teaching, after I retired I was offered a job as a technical writer. My job was to write for and edit user Help files for a medical program written by and for a major pharmaceutical company. Our tech writing team’s job was to look at the plan for the program and, from that plan, write user-friendly Help files. It WAS an adventure, to say the least. I received a good salary, met some really good people, visited often with the software engineers, and learned a great deal about the very specific requirements for tech writing as opposed to the writing I had been doing. In addition, I’ve been responsible for writing newsletters for one educational business and writing and editing for a not-for-profit organization.
Some years after getting my MA at Ball State, I again attended Ball State as a participant in the Indiana Writing Project, which was life-changing for me as a teacher. Finishing my MA did not finish my participation in learning. I went on to take 30 hours past my MA simply because I wanted to learn new “stuff.” I applied for an Eli Lilly Teacher Creativity Grant at the end of the 90’s because I wanted to study connections between writing and painting, and Lilly gave me a generous stipend to spend during the summer on anything I wanted to do to enhance my comparison of the written story and the painted story. That summer changed my life, too, because I have continued to be a painter. My love of language and writing morphed into a love of and fascination with art, and I continue to paint and study to this day.
All the arts matter in our development as interesting and complex human beings. Listen to music. Play music. Draw. Paint. Dance. Create. Problem Solve. Write, even if it's only for yourself. I value my liberal arts education because it helps me to bring joy and creativity to my life.
But that's just my opinion.
Wishing you a creative 2022.