The One Thing You Will Never Learn at a Liberal Arts College

Life isn’t fair.

It seems like a simple enough lesson, but it’s apparently forbidden in the ivory tower. I’ve seen a stunning amount of work put into academic deconstruction of the unfairness of the simplest statements, demonstrating a scholarly grasp of the intricacies of a situation, but a five-year-old child’s demand for some grown-up out there to set it right. There is an unwritten law that academics are not allowed to identify any social problem that originates in their own thinking. They might be able to correct the scholarly consensus, but in the end, the solution to the problem always lies in changing someone else’s behavior. And merely identifying an external agent, whether real or imagined, doesn’t solve anything. Life doesn’t operate by the ethics of what ought to be.

In college you are exhorted to go out there and make things fair, but life isn’t fair; some small parts of your life may have been fair, but the majority of it wasn’t. Having identified the cause of all your problems, you are told to remedy it and thereby fix the world. But you’re not going to fix the world. Your ability to fix things will vary deeply; if you’re very lucky and very courageous, you get to fix the lives of the people around you; if you’re merely average like most of the world, you fix yourself and maybe your family; if you’re unlucky, not even that. They don’t teach lessons on how to move from the unlucky to lucky tier at your school. You might pick it up from a church or a community group, but most likely you will have to learn as you move along.

College does not teach you how to operate in humanity’s complex web of power and relationships, or even its own section of that web. In fact, if you really, truly believe what you are taught in college, you will never learn to navigate this world. Instead, you will protest the human reality that you live in, refusing to respect the existence of power and desiring an end to its constituent parts. On the personal level: You will learn how to protest any unfair treatment of you yourself, or perhaps someone around you, by making a big fuss.  You will see the lawsuit as the ultimate weapon in your personal life, and public shaming as the ultimate consequence. You will not understand how to shrug off the small stuff and resolve the larger issues quietly to the satisfaction of all involved. If you have integrity, you will lean towards religious asceticism, and may find some peace in separating yourself from the world entirely; if  you lack it, you will simply be known as the most troublesome person in your circle of acquaintances.

On the political level: Anyone who refuses to adopt your message will be either ignorant, bigoted, or evil. You will discover that most of the world falls into one of these three categories. You will find that your personal vision of a just world and a fair life differs from that of others who naively desire a total end to injustice, and you will be doomed to fight with those comrades instead of “the enemy”. Meanwhile, your actual participation in society, through part-time jobs, freelance work, or street protests, will be irrelevant — not because rebels have never won, but because true rebellions are born out of more than theoretical ponderings. The true operation of the world will be beyond your grasp, except for a small circle of friends.

Those who reject what they were taught, or majored in economics or business instead, will be rewarded with both success and wisdom. Perhaps they will never understand the extent of injustice around the world and the tools needed to right it. But, over time, they will come to understand the smaller worlds that they themselves live in. That form of knowledge is truly power, and whether they use that power for good or evil is up to them; but it will become theirs to wield.

The founders of many American liberal arts colleges were solid Protestants who hoped to use the influence of the university system to spread their values. In the most superficial sense the collegiates of today have rejected that Christianity. But, on a much deeper level, they carry on the 19th century Protestant message of utopia on earth, and parade through the streets proclaiming their absolute truths and rallying fervent believers to their personalized causes. They can do what they want, but the facts will not change. Life isn’t fair.

Posted: December 18th, 2010 | Kultur 6 Comments »

6 Comments on “The One Thing You Will Never Learn at a Liberal Arts College”

  1. 1 Leonardo Boiko said at 10:53 am on December 18th, 2010:

    > There is an unwritten law that academics are not allowed to identify any social problem that originates in their own thinking.

    Well… half of anthropologists these days seem to do nothing but criticize the evils of Western anthropology.

  2. 2 Leonardo Boiko said at 11:08 am on December 18th, 2010:

    Your portrait of academic life matches fairly well my experience with college… students. And then again, only with the (small) “politized” faction of students. Professors, by contrast, have generally been among the most wise and pragmatic people I’ve ever met. But then, I’ve never been to an American university so we might be talking about different things.

  3. 3 Avery said at 8:27 am on December 19th, 2010:

    Indeed. College professors are often very intelligent people. The audience of this post was meant to be the student or recent graduate who’s grappling with how their classes relate to the world they live in.

  4. 4 Tex said at 6:29 pm on January 30th, 2011:

    Whilst I agree with your general assessment of life, I cannot accept it, and neither should anybody. Your view is a decidedly conservative opinion in regards to power and power relations and of overal immobility of the human condition. I can imagine this stems from your religious view. As someone who has unpublished historical work I find it odd that you’d render that work to purely spielerei in the process.
    The liberal arts are a cornerstone of human development and society, even day to day life as they provide context and critical thinking so necessary in our society. Not just for ethical reasons as you would see it, but in the personal intrest of all involved. Negligence of them (therefor context for events, opinions, etc and a critical view of them) usually leads or is a sign of the downfall of a societal-model.
    The only failure here is not the poor students who might be victims of the world around them to a certain degree (as everybody else are but in different manners), but the non-appreciation of them and their work and therefor lack of their contribution to sustainability of a societal model and general quality of human life by not appreciating their input.

  5. 5 Avery said at 1:28 am on January 31st, 2011:

    That was an interesting read. I’m not sure what my “religious view” is or how it prevents me from accepting “human development”.

  6. 6 Avery said at 1:30 am on January 31st, 2011:

    To make myself clear– that wasn’t rhetoric, I literally have no idea what either of those terms is supposed to mean, although I can see how believing that they have meaning might assist you in your own worldview.