The case for liberal arts

These are just some of the dozens of books I've had to read to research my term papers. They bring a lot of work, but also signal the end of term.
These are just some of the dozens of books I’ve had to read to research my term papers. They bring a lot of work, but also signal the end of term.

Today, my class term ended.

Weird, right?

Although it may be difficult to believe – as Marquette has just returned from Spring break – I’m finishing up my classes this week. I had my last seminar this morning, waved goodbye to my fellow classmates, and walked over the Waterloo bridge for the last time before exams.

Over the past 11 weeks I’ve learned a lot about Shakespeare, life in the trenches, Buddhists and really rich people in the 1700s.

Because I only have exams left for the semester, I thought I’d take this time to reflect on my experience with the British education system, however brief it may have been.

I love the British education system.

I don’t think that is a secret. I’m a little obsessed with it. It just seems to make so much more sense, allowing students to know subjects they are interested in really well.

Students study in whatever program they are most interested at “uni,” sticking to classes that are related to that program. If that seems confusing, just imagine taking ONLY literature classes or ONLY politics-related classes for three years.

If you really like your major, this probably seems like the best education system ever.

But is it really all that I’ve made it out to be?

It’s hard to deny that the current “A Level” and “Uni” systems are traditionally embedded in the ol’ tutor system of English aristocracy of old. French, drawing, poetry, Latin? Check. Interdisciplinary? What is that?

I didn’t take A-levels, so I cannot attest to any schooling prior to university. However, it seems that the ‘program’ system doesn’t allow for much interdisciplinary learning.

Yes, some of my professors have made the effort to apply theories from different disciplines to our’s. If I have to read one more article about Freudian psychology in literature, I may tear it up in frustration. However, not all professors and departments make the effort to cross over. For job perspectives, this seems to make sense. Future employees will know their field really well, with a large, in-depth course of study that actually covers all aspects of the subject.

It sounds great, and I certainly love the specific-ness of my courses, the enthusiasm of the professors for the specific topics, and only having class eight hours every week.

But …

Without my liberal arts education, I wouldn’t know about as many things as I do now.

I may not know every theory applicable to the analysis of Siegfried Sassoon’s poetry, or understand the Pali root words of Buddhist concepts.

I may also complain about Marquette’s curriculum quite a bit. Sometimes, changing the curriculum every year in attendance can get a bit frustrating. Taking a math class, Western Civilization and my 18th theology class may seem pointless sometimes.

But without my liberal arts education, would I really be able to apply Environmentalist theory to Buddhism? Or social constructionism to literary criticism of Shakespeare? Those are just two of my essay topics for term papers. I might have been able to come up with similar ideas, but there’s a good chance I would’ve never learned about anthropocentrism or social construction without my liberal arts education.

So there is a sliver lining to all the curriculum fuss, PHIL 1001 and that math class I was forced to take freshmen year: You can apply them to things you actually care about and subjects you enjoy.

I’m not sure if I missed a “liberal arts” memo somewhere, but that was quite an epiphany to me. Maybe it was a big Jesuit idea I had to learn on my own, unlocking it like a super-secret question-mark box on SuperMario.

Regardless, I had no idea that my liberal arts education actually had a purpose of synthesizing ideas and applying them across disciplines. I just thought I was really supposed to know small bits of information about everything.

I’m learning more than I actually thought I was in the first place. Sneaky, Jesuits, very sneaky.

While my odes to the British uni system will continue (who doesn’t want eight hours of class per week?), I’ve grown to appreciate the crazy idea Ignatius & Co. came up with ages ago.

I think we should all keep in mind there is a purpose to that math class or Plants, Pathogens and People you have to take. You never know when you’ll apply biological systems to your philosophy paper. At the very least, you’ll know more math than the average Brit studying literature.