took apart our notion of college as vocational training. He reminded us
that we were attending a liberal arts college, and if we were in pursuit of
marketable skills, we had come to the wrong place. College was about
more than a paycheck after graduation. He hoped that we would leave
with an education, not just a job.
We looked at him blankly; this was news to us.
As we writhed in our plastic chairs, he continued to speak of “spa-
ciousness of mind,” “intellectual curiosity” and “joy of discovery.”
Where I got the faith and confidence to follow his suggestions and
trust in the places college would take me, I’ll never know. I was paying
for my own education, so I suppose I had the luxury of doing exactly
what I wanted. Also, no one seemed to expect much of me. I’d spent
my high school years in the Ozarks, where education wasn’t a priority.
Less than 10 percent of my graduating class went to college. Many were
thrown into the challenges of adulthood—keeping a job, maintaining a
marriage, raising children—before they had discovered who they were
and what they wanted from life.
I made the hazy decision to major in English, while most of my peers
jumped on the computer science or business bandwagons, hoping after
college to lock in management jobs with Wal-Mart, Dillard’s or Tyson,
major recruiters on campus. And while it took me longer than my more
practical-minded classmates to find my way, I eventually became a professor of English and creative writing at a small liberal arts college.
Like my former composition professor, I was what some today would
derogatively call an “educationist,” a person who sees higher education
as a means to creative growth and individual potential. It was an intellectual position that each year became harder and harder to maintain as
the tectonic plates of higher education were shifting under my feet. Each
year my college added more “career-ready” degrees and certificates at
the expense of its liberal arts mission. My fellow humanities professors
slowly disappeared from the corridors of the general classroom building.
Faded world maps, chipped busts of great thinkers and reproductions of
iconic artworks went into storage. And my college is not unique. For
some time now, there’s been a dramatic flight from the arts and sciences
to occupational and vocational areas.
Higher education is under siege, attacked on all sides by economic
uncertainty, the pressures of globalization, a revolution in technologies,
the breakdown of faculty tenure, the extended state of adolescence in
young people and the challenges confronted by K– 12 teachers to instill