A degree in the liberal arts is more than just a combination of myriad subjects.
It took a few heated debates, some introspection and a cup of coffee for me to realise that there are some serious misconceptions about the value of liberal arts education abroad.
A liberal arts education is one that focuses on studying a large range of subjects and developing analytical and communication skills. Typically, liberal arts colleges have smaller class sizes and greater professor-student interaction. But because of its more holistic approach to education and community building, it has been subjected to a lot of criticism.
For some, a liberal arts college is an alcohol-fuelled, four-year system catering to the less than average Joe who just does not want to get serious. For others, it is an unfocussed, ‘not for this economy’, education. After all, what value does studying an array of academic disciplines from philosophy to literature to maths, hold? College is not meant to be like school and, surely, a general education that asks you to study something from every field is less than desirable.
But that is the point; college is nothing like school. Especially for an Indian who has been stuck in an education system that demands him or her to make the critical decision of choosing a career at the tender age of 16. You are forced to opt for a future based on stereotypes, popular belief and a less than adequate understanding of your field.
When I stepped into Furman University, I was certain that I was going to graduate with a degree in Biology. I had been passionate about the subject since age 10. I had done extremely well in it and, with a little prodding from my parents — my future was decided.
This changed drastically once reality sunk in. Sitting in a genetics lab class one day, staring into the microscope, I realised that this was not for me. Real biology, involving tedious research, hours in the lab with a microscope and endless statistical calculations, was nothing like what I had studied in school.
The thrill and excitement of learning about the fundamentals of life was replaced with a sense of drudgery. I felt lost and guilty about changing my mind. My plan, for what I was going to study and do with my life, had fallen apart and it all seemed like a disaster. But after a tearful conversation with a professor, I realised that I had actually been really lucky. I was now in a system that gave me the opportunity to explore my options before having to make a decision.
A liberal arts curriculum with its dreaded, wide-spectrum, general education requirements encourages a person to explore various fields and only declare a major at the end of two years. I had been saved.
Of course, in a country where kids join coaching classes for IIT in class VII, exploring anything different is not encouraged. Studying Social Science, Humanities and music might probably be worse. But, when I think of this, I am struck by the story of Steve Jobs.
Steve Jobs played a big role in revolutionising the digital world. He was an innovator and futurist who was able to unite technology with art. Jobs, though a college dropout, used his foundation in the liberal arts to give us Apple and Pixar as we know it today. In his commencement speech at Stanford University, he spoke of a calligraphy class he had taken at Reed College, a liberal arts institution, which went on to help him 10 years later while designing the first Macintosh. Jobs was able to use those skills in making the typography seen in computers today. He was able to bank on his liberal arts education to bring science and creative thinking together and become a true innovator.
Having come back home for the summer, I am often bombarded with questions about what I’m going to do with my life and whether pursuing an anthropology and political science degree is a good idea.
Even though these questions did get me down initially, I have come to realise that I love what I am studying and feel passionately about it. It pushes me to do better and, unlike some of my friends studying here in India, I am not wasting my college years living in a purple haze and waiting for the next leg of life to begin.
College for me is no longer about receiving that diploma at the end of four years but receiving an education and looking beyond dogmatic opinions. My liberal arts education has not only given me an opportunity to explore different options but has also enabled me to hone the skills necessary for an ever changing world and economy. It has helped me discover myself.