Majoring in the liberal arts can be taxing—the eternal question I seem to face is: “You’re an English major? What do you want to do with that?” Students need to be employment-oriented in an increasingly competitive and exclusive job market. The idea of pursuing a passion or talent is met with skepticism and advice to “explore other options.” Sometimes it’s difficult to remain sure of the decision to pursue a BA in the humanities.
My aunt, however, continued to work in the liberal arts with the goal of earning a PhD in political science; today, she’s an assistant professor at the University of California, Riverside. As I push through each semester at Illinois, she has always been a source of encouragement and enthusiasm for the path I’ve chosen to pursue.
She helped me a lot when it came to applying to college. It’s hard to talk about ourselves, to see our experiences as unique and leading to really relevant and valuable questions about the world we live in. But when I look back at our emails from my senior year of high school, I have to say this might be the best thing she wrote to me: “Think: (1) Who is Melisa? (2) Why is Melisa Melisa? (3) Why does Melisa being Melisa make Melisa want to study X?”
I said “What?” too.
But I think her point was that going to college never meant I had to completely squeeze my identity into a single program. A college education—particularly, a liberal arts education—meant I could pursue questions that were relevant to my experiences and interests that any discipline might be able to answer.
I feel like I took her advice for granted at the time, but when I asked her recently about writing this blog and the value of a liberal arts education, her email was as long and wisdom-packed as usual.
Now that I’ve had a few semesters of college under my belt, I’ve found myself thinking about her words in many different, and unexpected, ways. While I’ve been learning about literature and critical theory in English, I decided to take general education classes out of my comfort zone. My aunt’s advice to pursue questions pushed me to take computer science, think about business classes, and remember that the liberal arts at Illinois is on equal footing with the sciences. Here’s an excerpt from her latest email—hopefully you might find something that speaks to you.
“Knowledge is truly power. It is the most empowering thing in the world to know a great deal about how the world really works, to be able to hold a conversation with anyone you come across.
“A liberal arts education teaches fundamental communication skills—especially writing!—and socializes students into the realm of civil debate, intellectual exchange, embracing of diversity, and mutual respect. Debates go beyond the surface level in college, and mastering the subtlety of language is the only way to express and communicate intricate ideas so that knowledge moves up to the next level.
“Also, students develop critical thinking skills in college. The skeptical, scientific mind questions old truths, challenges traditions, and keeps progress moving forward. Critical thinking…is so fundamental to human freedom and liberty because it keeps the powerful in check! And critical thinking forces one to constantly question oneself and keep oneself honest.
“We learn to avoid confirmation bias (e.g., only reading things we agree with) and we learn to understand the world from multiple different angles simultaneously, all the time. I could go on! For hours! But hey, look, I will defend a liberal arts education to the death.”