A Liberal Arts Education: The Moment of Truth – Jeff Israel, Professor of Religion

What is the “moment of truth” for a liberal arts education? Is it when you open the envelope that tells you if you’ve been admitted to graduate school? Is it after you’ve interviewed for your first job or internship out of college, waited anxiously, and the phone rings with the final decision? Are these the moments that determine whether or not your liberal arts education has proven worthwhile? These are important moments, to be sure, but in my view they are not an appropriate measure for the value of a liberal arts education.

Consider the following scenario. It is about eight or ten years since you graduated, you’ve worked incredibly hard and you have every reason to believe that you will be steadily promoted and make increasingly more money. On the surface you are doing very well. But you are haunted by persistent malaise. You wonder, “Is this it? Is this as good as it gets for me?

Maybe you chose your professional path out of financial necessity and you finally have enough security to think more expansively about the kind of work that you really want to do. Maybe you never fully explored the range of lives that might have been open to you after graduation. This is a moment for serious and consequential self-reflection.

At this moment you may ask yourself: what do I really care about? What would I choose to do if I were empowered to thrive in my own way? How might I judge the world around me, and my place in it, if I had the time and support to think slowly, carefully, deeply and experimentally? I hope that graduates of Williams can reach back to their experience here as a touchstone when trying to answer these questions.

Here you should have the time and support for deliberate thinking. You should have a chance to thrive idiosyncratically. And above all, you should be able to cultivate relationships with books, ideas, thinkers, fields of knowledge, expressive forms, problems, languages, fellow students, professors, and much more that you will want to revisit and reconstruct throughout your life. A liberal arts education is worthwhile because it is good to have these “educative relationships. It is good to care in this way about the world and others.

The extrinsic value of educative relationships is evident in the case of the thirty-two-year-old alumnus who is haunted by malaise. Revisiting and reconstructing rich, intense educative relationships should, over time, plot a kind of trajectory, narrative arc, or life-plan, which will forever excite your imagination about what comes next. The salience of this trajectory is valuable well beyond the search for professional fulfillment. It can help to guide you when you are lost. Indeed, its extrinsic value is most palpable when things really fall apart, at the dark moments in life when forces beyond your control disrupt your plans, forcing you to confront your vulnerability, leaving you disoriented and unmoored.

But it is a fundamental belief in the intrinsic value of educative relationships that is perhaps most distinctive about a liberal arts education. On this point, I am inspired by the University of Chicago literary critic Wayne Booth, whom I’ve never met, but with whom I have had a long and edifying educative relationship. Booth was unhappy with the reigning metaphors that organized literary criticism in the 1970s and 1980s: solving puzzles, deciphering codes, wandering through mazes, untangling webs, or dismantling ramshackle structures.” He wanted, by contrast, to revive “a kind of talk … about the types of friendship or companionship a book provides as it is read.” He wanted to talk about the relationships that we seek with books “for the sake of the friendly company itself – the living in friendship.”

Friendship is also an apt core metaphor for the liberal arts. At a liberal arts college students should find themselves drawn into relationships that are worth having for their own sake – just for the living in relationship. Like great friendships, profound relationships with ideas or problems or fields of study are not necessarily pleasant. They can be stormy, personally challenging, even heartbreaking. And they are relationships that issue commands: follow this uncomfortable thought, go to live in that far off place, dig deeper, expose more. True educative relationships, like true friendships and other caring relationships, are in the tiny class of what you sometimes choose instead of pleasure, calm and convenience, money, power, and fame. This is part of what makes them intrinsically good.

Along with cultivating educative relationships, a liberal arts education should exercise each student’s capacity to make interpretive judgments, to formulate and analyze arguments, to communicate well with others about heavily fraught subjects, to critique the reigning styles of thought, and much else. Exercising these capacities often complements, facilitates, and emerges from educative relationships. It is also possible to learn information about the world, promote justice, and develop professional skills and networks while at a liberal arts college. But these options are available through other means as well.

Given this account of what we’re doing here, something is going horribly wrong if you are asked merely to prove over and over again that you can succeed at clearly defined tasks while under duress with maximum efficiency. To be sure, proving yourself capable of this kind of success will make you very attractive to many financially rewarding, high-status employers. But too much time proving oneself at such tasks is time lost that could be spent finding out what, in the end, the financial rewards and status should be for.

The moment of truth for a liberal arts education is right now. Now is the time to cultivate deep and enduring educative relationships.

If not now, when?

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One thought on “A Liberal Arts Education: The Moment of Truth – Jeff Israel, Professor of Religion

  1. I could not get passed the line: “Here you should have the time and support for deliberate thinking.”

    We should, but so often do not. Under the weight of hundreds and hundreds of pages of reading deliberate thought is stifled. And this elite brand of liberal arts education confuses complex, lengthy texts for engaged learning. Much more can be said on this matter, but as a student, I must get back to my reading for tomorrow.

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