Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Don't take subjects, take people

Fifty years ago this June, I had to take my transcript to my academic advisor to be approved for graduation from Michigan State University. 

He ran a practiced eye down the page, stopped, looked at me, went down the page again, more slowly, looked at me, and said, "You appear to have gotten yourself a liberal education. How did you do that here?"

"I sneaked around," I said. 

One of my instructors in the first term of freshman year, the late Jean Nicholas, gave me the best advice I received in college. "Don't take subjects," she said. "If you want to learn subjects, go to the library and read about them. Take people instead. Find out who the most interesting teachers are and sit in their classes. One of the things you are here for is to learn different approaches to life, different senses of humor." 

As an English major, I took most of my courses in English, but I embarked on courses on anthropology, religion, philosophy, art history, and more, while continuing to read broadly and avidly. On campus there were free screenings of films by Bergman and Fellini. The Chicago Symphony came around on tour every year. 

Michigan State gave me a broad framework of general knowledge and the ability to analyze texts and reason about them. This, I think, is what education is properly meant to do. 

But we see colleges and universities cutting back on offerings in the humanities, because we appear to think of education in a cramped and crabbed vocational perspective. Any course that does not immediately contribute to subsequent gainful employment is a waste of a student's time and all that expensive tuition. 

This has been going on for some time now, as evidenced, for example, by the hordes of diploma-holding middle-class adults who fall victim to crank anti-vaccine theories, because they were never encouraged to develop critical thinking. The national survey of U.S. book reading statistics in 2022 found that about half of American adults had not read a single book in the past year. STEM is important, but the humanities help make us human. 

I was fortunate to have parents who allowed me to chart my own course in college, teachers who offered unfailing encouragement, and an education (yes, a degree in English, of all things) that prepared me for a forty-year professional career and many satisfactions in life.