As students at a liberal arts college, we should be familiar with what a liberal arts education is supposed to entail. Rather than admitting students who specialize in a single area of study, colleges like Oberlin seek out applicants with a broad range of knowledge and skills that span various disciplines. While this aim certainly sounds noble, it’s easy, in a time where progress is equated to making the next best cell phone or curing major diseases, to question the value of this approach. While it’s hard to argue that a broad base of knowledge won’t benefit you as a worker, it seems like the people who make the greatest impact on the world are those with a single focus they pursue wholeheartedly.
Instead of arguing the value of a liberal arts education, I think it’s easier to approach this problem as it pertains to the world outside academia. Though education may become a substantial part of a person’s life, no prestigious college can substitute for the internal development that makes someone a valuable asset to society. For this reason, the problem greater than the system of education is the uncertainty people feel in meandering across many disciplines while their peers are honing their skills in one.
Take me, for example. Last Saturday I ran my first half-marathon, did so in under 90 minutes and placed first in my age group. Happy as I was with this outcome, I should mention that I do not run competitively for Oberlin’s cross country or track teams. Similarly, I’ve played saxophone for seven years and received several scholarships auditioning at other colleges, but I’m not in the Conservatory. While I could speak highly of my skills, the reality is that my running would probably be no more than average among collegiate runners, and I doubt I would’ve even been accepted into the Conservatory.
Yet I still run and play saxophone, without any intention of stopping either. Students who are focused on one area may argue that I’m wasting my time by dabbling with things I’ll never truly excel in. To them, I would say that these things keep me sane, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t wish I were a true virtuoso at something. This is where I think most prospective college students get trapped, and all they can think about is the straightest, most direct shot toward their future career. Even if they end up at a liberal arts college, students like this will avoid gen-ed requirements at all costs and pursue their careers like Wile E. Coyote after the Road Runner.
But something is truly lost when taking this approach. People who take this stance fail to notice how broad interests can inform and deepen understanding of a primary focus by shying away from hobbies and “outside” classes. No discipline exists in a vacuum, and that’s an eternal truth that eludes many aspiring professionals. Technology and economics are all but inseparable, sustainability is frequently determined by politics, and environmental justice requires social justice. The late Wangari Maathai, founder of Kenya’s Green Belt Movement, started as an environmentalist who saw tree-planting as a way to galvanize oppressed Kenyan women, thereby combating deforestation and institutionalized misogyny all at once.
Instead of viewing multiple interests as a source of distraction, broad exploration should really be seen as providing new perspectives on issues often approached from the same angle. Entirely new ideas are getting harder to find, but there are infinite possibilities for re-examining foundational issues. I can’t always specify how my running and music will inform my creative writing and biology majors, but I’ve signed up for the Cleveland Marathon and will continue playing jazz because I can’t imagine life without these pursuits. Even if they don’t directly contribute to my career, these avocations help me appreciate the breadth and complexity of this maddening world, and I have no doubt that such appreciation is going to be a valuable tool in the future, one that narrow-minded students may never allow themselves to have.