Where Do I Belong?

By Chandra Chandhok 2021-03-26

As I stepped onto this quaint, New England campus, I felt as though I was departing to a fantastical realm, replete with new sights, sounds, smells, and people that appeared almost otherworldly. I tread along a cobblestone path, passed by men and women sporting wacky fashion and colorful hair, hoisting signboards about the latest hot-button political issue. Golden-hued maple leaves fluttered to my feet, the wind carrying the sound of a professor-student conversation from a nearby classroom debating the merits of prescriptivism. Flying buttresses towered above—like medieval cathedrals—their sinister gothicism adorned with cheery pride flags. All were welcome. I was home. 

Higher education in the US takes many forms—from small liberal arts colleges to institutes of technology. Scholars may find themselves at a loss about which one to choose, wading through endless listicles, blog posts, and videos as they attempt to identify their perfect ‘fit.’ What approach to education will best quench my intellectual thirst? Where will I find the community that nurtures my spirit and cultivates my individuality? 

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“There are undeniably certain kinds of knowledge that must be of a general nature and, more importantly, a certain cultivation of the mind and character that nobody can afford to be without. People obviously cannot be good craftworkers, merchants, soldiers or businessmen unless they are good, upstanding and well-informed human beings and citizens. If this basis is laid through schooling, vocational skills are easily acquired later on, and a person is always free to move from one occupation to another, as so often happens in life.”

Willhelm von Humboldt’s letter to the Prussian king in the early 19th century describes a model of higher education that would be emulated worldwide in the decades to come. Long before Humboldt put pen to paper, however, the Ancient Greeks had contemplated the fundamental knowledge required to be an active, contributing member of society. 

And who would have thought that the most “non-technical” or “soft” of educational systems would have begun with Pythagoras, and all things mathematical? In fact, the sciences and humanities got along just fine in ancient times. Rooted in the classical tradition, the seven liberal arts in the 15th century consisted of the trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) and the quadrivium (geometry, arithmetic, astronomy and music). For those STEM students who scoffed at the liberal arts colleges and balked at their Great Books requirements, could perhaps consider their origin in the teachings of a certain mathematician who long they’ve worshipped.

Proponents of a liberal arts education have long emphasized its role in meeting civic needs. The Puritans who established Harvard were concerned about a shortage of clergy; during the Progressive Era, John Dewey insisted that a proper education would expand moral imaginations. Stemming from the Latin ‘liberales’ meaning “free” and “artes” meaning art (in the sense of a learned skill), a liberal arts education was considered essential for free citizens (men) in Greece and Rome, enabling them to actively participate in civic life, from participating in public debate, defending oneself in court, serving on juries, to participating in military service. 

For those scholars who find themselves unmoored, adrift amid the multiplicity of inspiring academic subjects—unable or perhaps unwilling to commit so soon to one discipline for the rest of their lives, the liberal arts offer an alluring compromise: you will find your path through seminar discussions, a focus on leadership, and the cultivation of wisdom. Liberal academe is a way for ideas, good and bad, to be subjected to enlightened reason, generations of professors and students worshiping at the temple of productive challenge and perpetually questioned certainties. A potent mix of practical training and idealism, this education is designed to imbue students with a selfless devotion to humanity, and of course, a job will come along the way too. The liberal arts are where a scholar finds meaning, the ability to connect one’s activities—whether you are a doctor, teacher, farmer, lawyer, or politician—to higher principles, higher ethics, and higher virtues. Its purpose is much more about making citizens and leaders than making workers.

There is a special pleasure in proffering advice that’s sure not to be followed—“Don’t check your phone first thing in the morning”; “Sit up straight while at your desk.” And how I so often feel when I implore scholars not to blindly apply to all seven Ivy Leagues without a second thought to the “second-tier” liberal-arts colleges whose names do not spark awe, envy, and intimidation in quite the same way. I often hear concerns about how a liberal arts experience won’t prepare them for a specific career, or that they won’t find a job after graduation, ending up working at Starbucks with their expensive degree in hand. Those same scholars might be surprised to learn that the CEOs of Starbucks, Goldman Sachs, Whole Foods, HBO, Disney, Hewlett-Packard, Time Warner Cable, and American Express, among many other major corporations, were liberal arts majors in college. 

Many scholars mistakenly believe that liberal arts study is confined to small, rural liberal arts colleges. There are in fact two types of US institutions that provide a liberal arts education: the small liberal arts college and the colleges within universities that call themselves College of Literature, Science and Arts or something similar, in which most non-pre-professional majors  (history, philosophy, mathematics, anthropology, French, and physics, etc) are housed. Worth noting, some of the most prestigious research universities in the country, including Yale, Harvard, and Brown, consider their undergraduate colleges to be liberal arts colleges.

Whether you are a student with a scattered constellation of academic interests or one laser-focused on what you wish to study, the rigorous training in critical thinking a liberal arts education offers will prove invaluable throughout life. The capacity to challenge ideas, and to discern significant truths about reality, faith, and human existence in your lives and careers. The ability to write and speak effectively, construct and evaluate arguments, apply knowledge in real-world settings, make ethical decisions, and work in teams. These will be non-negotiable in the job market. In fact, survival in the 21st century demands it.