Apology for the liberal arts


Albert Camus

I was a French major in college. I am not good at languages, but I wanted to be part of Davidson College’s second Junior-Year Abroad group. I lived in France for a year. At one time, I knew a lot about Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud and André Breton. I would pass Jean-Paul Sartre on the street when I was in Paris. Albert Camus lived in Luberon, not that far from Montpellier where I was in school living among his Pied-Noir compatriots.

A French major. It was excellent preparation for a career as a North Carolina lawyer. (André Breton wrote The Surrealist Manifesto.)

When I graduated and returned home, I like to think I knew more about Charles Baudelaire than the average Eastern NC tobacco (les fleurs du mal) farmer.

Actually, I found a practical application for my education fairly soon. When President Nixon announced to the nation that the United States was withdrawing all its forces from Cambodia, we were ordered the next week to send a detachment from Long Binh,Viet Nam to the Phnom Penh Airport to provide communications in the aftermath of the withdrawal. We were told that we would need passports and visas and that the detachment should wear civilian clothes. (I have wondered ever since if that made us spies. (If it did, I would put that on my resumé.)) I got the visas at the Cambodian Embassy in Saigon, speaking French.

To think that public policy may now be veering away from support for liberal arts and in the direction of seeking to prepare students for somebody’s vision of the needs of the workforce is worrying.

Liberal arts are the best preparation for an uncertain future. The best preparation for life. Suppose I had found a college that prepared students to be tobacco farmers? (In those days, they tied the tobacco on sticks with string.)

We’d still be waiting for those visas.

The economics of higher education are a mess and need to be straightened out. But for those who can manage the finances, a liberal education in a residential setting under the personal leadership of a dedicated faculty is still the best way to go.

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  • midlaw  On September 11, 2014 at 7:00 pm

    I have had some recent interaction with Agnes Scott and that group is vitally engaged with these issues. You & Ellington and so right.


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