Committed Liberal Arts Thinkers in Overlooked Places

In a small suburb called Baytown, Texas, to the southeast of Houston, lies Lee College―where the leaves don’t change color in the fall, not a single student lives on campus, and the most popular major is process technology. Here, a short walk from the technical learning labs for refinery and manufacturing, in a classroom whose walls are adorned with handwritten farewells from alumni interspersed among the striking artworks of Klimt, Matisse, and Seurat, I started my trajectory toward Harvard.

We first heard of the course hosted in this classroom, The Human Condition, toward the end of our sophomore year at IMPACT Early College High School. My classmates and I were allowed to design a combined high school and college curriculum to quickly earn the first half of a marketable college degree by the end of our senior year and hopefully find a job that required more than a high school diploma thereafter. For some of us, college wouldn’t be an option if we enrolled in a traditional high school.

With our junior year coursework in mind, the instructors of The Human Condition pitched the class as a practical means for meeting Core Curriculum requirements for public colleges in Texas. By combining a year-long introduction to the humanities with English composition, The Human Condition would knock out two whole categories in the Core Curriculum. The instructors also said that the intense reading, writing, and discussing would make students much stronger communicators in the work force. Eager to knock out a few class requirements and beef up my resume at the same time, I signed up.

“Dare to Question” was written in bold text on the first page of a lengthy syllabus, hinting the real reason we were there. Over the next year, we studied together to understand the different frameworks on which many social norms were built and learned to appreciate the weight of the narratives driven by these norms. My concern about degree requirements and the exact trajectory toward that final, tangible result of my education melted away, giving rise to feelings of excitement, fulfillment, and curiosity. In a whirlwind of personal discovery and intellectual growth, we caught sight of the true underpinnings of liberal arts education.

For some of the students in the class, the existence of a humanistic concept of social norms was surprising in that it was so relatable yet hitherto not explicitly named or characterized. Many of the students from this category were brought up in challenging circumstances and always felt the tenacious, nagging feeling that some invisible force constrained their identities and capacity to express themselves, but found other concerns far too pressing to explore their feelings further. For others, being brought up in a close-minded, unquestioning environment meant that such matters were rarely challenged. Social norms in their households were seen as strict and static.

For us all, coming from diverse life paths that lead to taking The Human Condition at Lee College, it was incredibly difficult to talk about ideas and feelings. Nonetheless, we knew at the end of the course, some for the first time, that there is a certain value to education that can’t be captured by marketable college degrees, accelerated curricula, or Core Curriculum checkboxes.

At Harvard, we are thoroughly reminded of the aims and value of a liberal arts education during Opening Days before ever stepping foot in the classroom. For my Human Condition classmates, though, it wasn’t always a given. Necessity and a lack of exposure to certain educational ideals led many to take a practical approach to their studies. Children of families who struggle financially and who struggle with immigration and discrimination are sometimes taught first that education is a means of surviving and second that education is a means of liberating one’s mind. Sometimes the first function of education is so urgent that the second is never considered. In pitching their course the way they did but teaching it under fundamental liberal arts aims, the instructors recognized something that people from educational environments that differ from Baytown’s might miss.

What happens in the bubble of a traditional liberal arts school like Harvard, 1600 miles away, is marvelous. People feel galvanized to expend considerable effort pursuing questions for which they know exist no concrete answers and to engage with one another at all hours to challenge everything they know and experience. Every player in this environment is better off for it.

But never assume that the environments outside of these bubbles are not conducive to intellectual inquiry. Never underestimate the value of an education in any setting. And never dismiss the capacity for intellectual inquiry in people from other backgrounds.

Siavash Zamirpour ’20, a Crimson Editorial writer, lives in Matthews Hall.

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