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Further Trials of the Vagabond

By Philip M. Boffey

Vag shuddered as he spotted an old friend walking down the street toward him. He was always some-what apprehensive at these chance encounters, for he had learned long ago that old friends had a way of asking very-hard-to-answer and sometimes embarassing questions.

The trouble was, back home here people seemed to operate on an entirely different set of assumptions. Up at school it was always tacitly assumed that everyone should be getting a liberal education, and those who were not doing so were either ignored, or dubbed by some contemptuous term such as "wonk" or "weenie."

But here the world ran differently, and it was automatically assumed that one should be going to school for some particular practical goal, that one should be studying to be something. And that was why Vag was shuddering, for he didn't seem to be studying with any specific goal in mind, and he didn't seem to be preparing to be anything.

He knew already how the conversation would run, for he had participated in countless similar dialogues. His old friend would say "Hi, Vag. Say, where are you going to school now?" And Vag would answer "Harvard." "What are you studying there?" Old Friend would ask. "Oh, I'm a liberal arts student," Vag would reply. "I guess you might say I'm sort of a history major."

And then, as inevitably as the sun rises, Old Friend would say, "Oh. Going to be a teacher, eh?" Vag could never completely understand the jump in reasoning from the data he had given to the conclusion that he was going to be a teacher. He knew it had something to do with practicality, for Old Friend would be studying accounting or medicine or journalism or something similar. But Vag could never understand why it wouldn't be equally logical, practically speaking, that he was studying to become an historian. Yet Old Friend never seemed to ask this question.

It was probably just as well, for Vag would have had to give the same answer he always gave to the question of whether he was going to be a teacher. "No," he would reply. "Not necessarily. That is, I don't really know what I'm going to be."

And then Old Friend would have responded with the same quizzical glance, that now familiar look which implied so clearly that Vag was bats to be spending four years studying for nothing.

This glance never failed to make Vag uneasy. He always felt that he should be explaining himself to his friend, that he should be justifying his choice of a college and of a curriculum. He remembered hearing an address once by President Griswold of Yale on "The Practical Value of a Liberal Education," and he remembered that it had sounded very convincing at the time. But strain as he might, he could not recall any of the points, and he suspected that they would not sound as convincing coming from his mouth anyway.

He had heard a melange of justifications throughout his academic career, and he always culled through them in his mind to see if he might find something to say in his defense. He knew, for example, that a liberal education was supposed to make him a better, more well-rounded, more humble, more humane man. But he found it very hard to say to an old friend, "I am studying to be a better man than you will be."

Looking around his academic community, he sometimes thought he detected the beneficial influences of a liberal education. He found some professors who seemed to know a lot about many different things, and who had warm and humble personalities to boot. If this were the result of liberal training, then there seemed to be some sense to it. But Vag had to admit to himself that there were as many rotten, obnoxious individuals at college as at home.

What made things even more confusing was the fact that not everyone at college seemed to agree on what a liberal education was. Some seemed to think it involved getting acquainted with the "big" ideas and the "great" problems of all time, and, in theory at least, this seemed like a good thing to Vag. But others seemed to think it involved throwing oneself into any subject that proved stimulating. Some of these even claimed that students should be allowed to grow gloriously lopsided along whatever lines they pleased. This too had its good points, but Vag could not see why it was any worse to spend four years studying accounting than it was to spend the same amount of time studying Spoken Mandarin, or the history of Australia, New Zealand, and the adjacent islands.

So Vag generally had to give up the idea of explaining to his friend that a liberal education was making him a better man. Often he would seek to meet his friend on his own terms, and argue that a liberal education was preparing him better for his future job. He could always point out, for example, that business schools didn't give any special preference to economics majors as making the best businessmen, but selected those students who had done well in any field. And he had heard in the Navy that NROTC students, though initially at a disadvantage, generally caught up with the rigorously trained Annapolis graduates after a few years. But these did not seem to be reasons for taking a liberal education, so much as reasons for not avoiding one.

Vag had often tried good-naturedly to convince a doctor-in-training friend of his that he should be more liberally educated. But the doctor won every argument with the same triumphant question. "Vag," he would say. "Assume you are about to die, and only the most delicate operation can save you. Would you choose a doctor who knew his science thoroughly, or one could quote Plato to you?" And put in these terms Vag had to admit he would choose the lopsidedly scientific doctor.

Of course, he always suspected the alternatives had been painted a little too black and white. At any rate, he felt he had made the right choice of a college. He just found it hard to explain this to his friends. And that is why he was shuddering with apprehension as his old friend approached.

"Hi, Vag," his friend greeted. "Say, where are you going to school now?" "Harvard," Vag answered uncomfortably. "What are you studying there?" Friend continued. "I'm a liberal arts student," Vag replied. "I guess you might say I'm sort of a history major." "Oh. Going to be a teacher, eh?" Friend continued. "No," Vag sighed. "Not necessarily. I don't really know what I'm going to be." And with that he walked away.

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