What's The Use?

What does a liberal arts education mean for Harvard students today?

Jessica H. Chan

During a Crimson Key Society tour, a crimson-clad guide delivers this fact: “Harvard President Abbot Lawrence Lowell once said that the Harvard undergraduate should know ‘a little bit of everything, and something well.’”

But as the group, likely full of Harvard-hopefuls, dutifully listens to the adage, an unspoken issue lurks beneath Harvard’s facade as a liberal arts institution: students attend Harvard to get a “well-rounded” education, but often leave to never again think about, let alone use, said teaching.

What Lowell praised is now referred to as “liberal arts”—a well-rounded curriculum that attempts to balance some specialization with a breadth of knowledge, an effort to effectively create modern Renaissance men. With a Core Curriculum and 44 undergraduate concentrations, Harvard attempts to provide the sort of education that Lowell dreamt of.

But as higher education has expanded across the board, the popularity of the liberal arts—which has no direct professional application, save in academia—has decreased, particularly since so many undergraduates seek lucrative jobs in finance, law, and medicine. According to English professor Louis Menand, who co-chaired the task force to redesign Harvard’s general education requirements, this trend of decreasing interest in non-applied fields is not new. “The percentage of bachelor’s degrees in the liberal arts against all bachelor’s degrees that are given every year has been going down for about 100 years,” Menand says.

While most of the nation’s top universities—including Harvard—still slant their curricula heavily toward the liberal arts, the effect is that many students spend their college days reading about everything from dinosaurs to Descartes, but then leave Cambridge for jobs completely unrelated to their course work. This dichotomy of the education and subsequent lives of Harvard students begs the question: amid the growing emphasis on professional preparation, just how relevant are the liberal arts to the lives of undergraduates?

Student opinions of the liberal arts generally falls into three main categories: would-be academics see the liberal arts as a means to an end in and of itself; others believe that the liberal arts will forever sharpen their critical thinking skills, which will benefit them regardless of profession; and still others see their college years as divided between studying the liberal arts in academic settings and pursuing professionalism in extracurricular ones.

THE LIBERAL ARTS AS A LIFE

Amid the cacti and cows of the California desert, Thomas M. Miller ’08 came face-to-face with the liberal arts. Miller is a graduate of Deep Springs College, a two-year college that enrolls 26 Ivy-caliber men, who live together and maintain a ranch as they study fields such as philosophy and literature. Before he transferred to Harvard in 2006, Miller farmed and debated Plato with equal vigor. Now living in the Dudley Co-op, he came to Harvard to study Classics, having taken both Latin and Greek in an all-boys’ private high school in Baltimore, Md.

Unlike many Harvard students who have view the Core as a bane, Miller considers a liberal arts education to be an end, and he’s not alone. Miller is someone who considers his time at Harvard to be the genesis of a lifelong pursuit of knowledge. “My training tends to make me think of what liberal arts meant historically,” Miller says. “I think the way it’s used now has become unmoored from the historic meaning of the term.”

In Miller’s view, students go to Harvard to learn—not for the attendant perks and connections that come with enrollment. “Learning to read books and reading them is such an incredibly time- and effort-consuming process that I don’t see how anyone can really pursue a liberal education combined with extracurricular activities,” he says. “It’s a free country—but there’s no shame in spending time on your studies.”

This view of schooling is echoed by Menand: “Liberal arts are fields where inquiry is pursued disinterestedly, which means that it’s knowledge for its own sake,” he says. He notes that over the past half century, only about a tenth of Harvard graduates go on to earn Ph.D.s, while 60 percent go into business, law, or medicine.

Miller, for his part, plans to take the road less taken. He intends to go to graduate school in the humanities immediately after college, the next step towards his goal of a career in academia.

This goal reflects Miller’s belief that the liberal arts give him all that could be desired: vast knowledge of diverse subjects and a deep understanding of one. It is this kind of conviction that has insured the longevity—if not popularity—of the liberal arts.

RENAISSANCE MEN

After years of elaborate Lego, K’nex and Construx Deluxe projects, Tabaré A. Gowen ’10 knew he liked to build. In fact, his passion was such that before arriving at Harvard in the fall of 2006, he had already constructed for himself a future in engineering.

Yet Gowen chose to attend Harvard rather than a school like MIT because Harvard, unlike technical schools, provides him with the option to explore other educational possibilities. He, like many in similar positions, believes that the liberal arts will aid in his pursuit to become a well-rounded person—an important quality regardless of future profession.

Venkatesh “Venky” Narayanamurti, dean of the School of Applied Sciences and Engineering, supports this view of a well-rounded education as the product of liberal arts. He believes it is integral to success in any field post-college.

“Engineering is going to be part of the liberal arts of the future,” says Venky, noting that Harvard recently announced the creation of a new engineering track that will focus on creating “Renaissance engineers.” “What we want to have as our focus for the undergraduates is the broadly educated person, who’s comfortable in communications, who understands the societal issues. So if they’re working in some fancy new cell form, they also know the social implications of what they do.”

Many students and professors appreciate this need for a breadth of knowledge. “I have yet to find a student who has not felt that the liberal arts…provides them with a very unique perspective on the sciences or the social sciences,” says Homi K. Bhabha, a literature professor and director of the Humanities Center. “Though academically they may be experts in particular areas, one of the things the liberal arts does is create an intellectual bridge across disciplines.”

In fact, the importance of a well-rounded education is so widely recognized that some vocational schools have started to encourage exploratory learning. The Mount Sinai Humanities and Medicine Program accepts about 30 college students studying the humanities or social sciences for a spot at in medical school, for example, with an aim toward creating humanistic physicians.

Samantha L. Gelfand ’08, a Romance Languages and Literatures concentrator specializing in French and Italian literature, is a current student in the program. “I wasn’t sure enough that I wanted to go into medicine, that [premed] classes were worth the sacrifice of what I could be exploring,” Gelfand says. “I think that people who do spend their time in the normal [premed] system…miss out on interdisciplinary learning.”

Gelfand and Gowen speak to the oft-lamented fact that undergraduates are too young to be able to make a set-in-stone decision about life, and aren’t always ready to give up the interdisciplinary learning that is provided by liberal arts.

It is this sentiment that leads many to believe that while the traditional, well-rounded curriculum may be a thing of the past, the liberal arts at Harvard are now about creating the student who can study engineering and then go on to law school, or concentrate in romance languages and then become a world-class doctor.

COCKTAIL CONVERSATION

Born in Budapest but educated in Germany, Mate Pencz ’10 explains that the liberal arts are the principle reason he came to study in the United States. In Germany, as in much of Europe, students immediately plunge into professional school following high school graduation.

Pencz, a joint government and economics concentrator, has goals for the future that rest far from the liberal arts education he came to Harvard to pursue: his dream is a job in finance. Because of that, Pencz sees liberal arts differently than those who seek careers in the Ivory Tower. “I view [the liberal arts] as a great continuation of the broad high school education where you just go in depth in many different fields, from many different angles, and in a lot of different topics,” Pencz says.

Like many others who choose Harvard over schools with majors like business and finance but still end up on Wall Street, Pencz sees his liberal arts education as a way to supplement his résumé. Extracurricular activities play a key role in preparing Pencz for his desired future: he is the business manager of Harvard Model Congress Asia, he has a research job at Harvard Business School, and a Goldman Sachs internship lined up for the summer. Pencz is also among the troop of undergraduates who heads down Mass Ave a few days a week for accounting courses at MIT. It’s this idea of using time outside the classroom to build the skills necessary to break into finance that has given birth to popular extracurricular groups like Women in Business, Harvard Pre-Medical Society, and Harvard College Law Society.

Given that many employers now care little what undergraduates actually studied in their classes, students have begun to craft a new type of liberal education—one where extracurriculars are the key part of career training, and academics become, in some sense, extracurricular themselves. According to Bill Wright-Swadel, the director of the Office of Career Services, the perception of liberal arts education as peripheral is not far from the truth when it comes to firms that recruit at Harvard. “Employers that we talk to for the most part tell us that the concentration is not the driving force,” Wright-Swadel says. “Take Computer Science—if you have great computer skills, you can be an English concentrator and go to work in most of the computer domains.”

Increasingly, courses and concentrations seem to take a backseat in determining one’s post-college life. Many students see liberal arts merely as a supplement to non-academic activities—a series of motions necessary to obtain a piece of paper certifying one as employable.

“In finance, you do all that recruiting, but it’s completely disconnected from your education,” says Charlotte L. Kemper ’07, a former History and Literature concentrator, who now works at Fidelity Investments. While she says that her Harvard education admittedly allows her to think critically and qualitatively at Fidelity—granting her the permission to pass on the number crunching to her colleagues—its value in her life is slim.

But not non-existent. Says Kemper, “It certainly makes for good chitchat at cocktail parties.”