An open letter to Castleton students:
Responding to Thomas Edison’s opinion that a college education is useless, Albert Einstein reportedly said, “The value of an education in a liberal arts college is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks,” according to biographer Philipp Frank (p. 185). Today, we hear students expressing concerns that their college education will not lead to a job or career. It is perfectly reasonable for students to expect that a college education will make them employable and that the college degree is a step into a productive profession. But the path from degree to career might not be as linear as students hope.
We don’t know what the jobs of the future will be or what competencies they will require. Those who develop critical reasoning and problem-solving abilities will be prepared for changes in the economy and culture that we cannot anticipate this far out. To prepare a student with a specific set of skills may be important, but to prepare students to be critical thinkers and life-long learners is an absolute necessity. It is the liberal arts education that prepares students for the latter—to adapt to changing circumstances and to be resilient when old skills become outmoded.
Recently, some of my students read an excerpt from Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987). In that notable work, Bloom rails against what he sees as the declining standards in higher education and urges a return to classical education based on a well-defined (and absolutist) cannon of western thought. While I take issue with many of the critiques that Bloom asserts, his book does make a compelling case for an honest search for truth and meaning that we typically define as a liberal arts education. Bloom writes that the undeclared major, “… is an embarrassment to most universities, because he seems to be saying, ‘I am a whole human being. Help me form myself in my wholeness and let me develop my real potential,’ and he is the one to whom they have nothing to say.”
I hope that Bloom’s criticism rings hollow at Castleton. Our commitment to the liberal arts welcomes the undeclared student and puts that student on a path to find his or her passions and place in the world. What one learns in one’s major is extremely important, but the path to finding the right major for the individual, as well as the ability to draw connections between one’s major and other disciplines, is even more important. Students’ general educational experience at Castleton should prepare them for success not only in their major but also in all future endeavors beyond college. Neither the economy nor career skills are static and unchanging. Students should leave Castleton not fully formed but capable of continuously forming and adjusting to changing environments.
-Rich Clark, Associate Professor of Political Science