As a teacher, I’ve heard numerous students claim such things as, “I am only going to be an electrician, so I don’t need a college degree” or “I’m planning on just staying home with my kids, so I don’t really need an education.” These statements are troubling, for more than one reason. The first is tangential to my point, but worth noting: using language such as “only” or “just” to describe your future occupation does a disservice to it and to you as a pursuant of it. Our society would be in serious trouble if we had no electricians or mechanics or janitors, and taking care of a home is a much bigger job than the word “just” implies. Jobs that keep society running are important. A similar problem happens in the reverse; I’ve heard students say, “I am going to be a physicist, so why should I read Shakespeare?” The “only” is implied here; it may be true that you will become a physicist, but surely you won’t just be a physicist and have no other duties or interests. Everyone—electricians, mechanics, physicists, teachers, parents—are humans, and, as humans, you need more than just vocational training to flourish.
Language aside, there is an even more troubling assumption at work: that education is about the economic benefit it will bring. If education really is just job preparation, then it doesn’t seem necessary to study subjects not directly related to your chosen field. It comes down to the question of why you should know things that aren’t necessary for you to pay your bills. This is closely connected to the question of why universities require students to take General Education classes. History can help us here. The Liberal Arts (those subjects studied in General Education), according to the ancients (and most up until the 20th Century) were the things that help one live a flourishing life in the world. This included thinking and argumentation skills and disciplines that help one understand the world, like history, astronomy, geometry, etc. Additionally, the Liberal Arts were grounded in classical texts and literature. In Torrey Academy, we talk about taking part in the Great Conversation by reading the important works from the past (and present) and asking questions along with the authors and other readers of the book. Culture and knowledge have largely been passed down to generations through the reading of classic texts. In the Great Conversation, not only do students learn to think for themselves in order to find Truth, their sentiments are formed so they love what is lovely and good and act on what they know to be right. This prepares students for life and to be better Christians. In this scheme of education, vocational or job skills training is done after General Education, not in place of it. Universities maintain this tradition and thus require students to complete at least two years of General Education before they go on to specialize in various majors. Surely, having refined thinking and communication skills can also assist one in their vocation. But it mainly assists you in flourishing as a human. Remember that no one is ever defined just by their job.
So students, you have choices to make. I hope that you will choose to take full advantage of the opportunities afforded to you as a full-time student in college. Treat General Education requirements as important to your human flourishing, not as things to check off a list before you can start your “real” life. Consider finding a program, like the Torrey Honors Institute, that emphasizes the importance of savoring your General Education. You have choices to make right now too. Choose to take harder classes in high school. Choose to take those extra academic electives even if you don’t “need” them to graduate. Lastly, if your situation doesn’t afford you the ability to thoroughly explore the liberal arts in school, do it on your own. Pick up a copy of a classic text and find a friend with whom to discuss it. Take part in the Great Conversation by experiencing as much goodness, truth, and beauty you can. You will be a better electrician, physicist, or whatever you choose, by flourishing as a human first.1
- For those wanting to pursue a general education on their own, I recommend both Bauer’s A Well Trained Mind and Reynolds’ The Great Books Reader.