[After I’d been out of college for 16 years, I had begun to see some real-life applications of my liberal arts education. Even when I was in school, many people looked on liberal arts as an impractical approach; today, that belief has become almost axiomatic. In a recent column, I offered a perspective on the loss of student-performed theater at my alma mater. In that article (“Disappearing Theater,” 14 July), I spoke of the responsibility of liberal arts institutions like Washington and Lee University. It seemed opportune to revisit my statement on the practical benefits of that educational philosophy at this time.]
When I was teaching writing back in the mid-1980s, a student asked, “Is there value in a liberal arts education?” The question was a response to a request for my writing classes to suggest topics of interest to them. While most of her classmates proposed issues of more portent, such as divestiture of South African investments, rating rock-music lyrics, and the treatment of AIDS patients, this student found that question significant. It made me think: How would I answer her question myself? I’m the proud possessor of a liberal arts degree; many of the people I know and work with are, too. What is the value of a liberal arts education? The practical value, not the one that says, “It teaches you to think” (even though I believe it does).
This question, which makes me reflect on my four undergrad years, must also be of real concern to every member of a liberal arts school’s student body, faculty, and administration. Their major purpose is to provide a liberal education to thousands of young people every year, and to graduate many hundred products of that process out into the world. I never had much cause to doubt the value of my degree over the years, though it never got me a job or earned me a cent. It was simply part of what I am. But what good did it do me? Why am I better for having it?
Actually, in a way, I did question the idea of liberal arts schooling while I was still in college. One of my roommates, a science major who wanted to be a doctor (and became one), was frustrated because he was required to take a number of humanities courses. He couldn’t understand why he had to dilute his scientific specialization with useless classes in literature and languages. He wasn’t the least bit interested in being “well-rounded”; he was going to be a scientist. I, on the other hand, was equally frustrated because I was being forced by the same university requirements to pick a major. (We had a heated discussion about this dichotomy one night.) I thought I’d be limited to taking the bulk of my classes within one area, and that rankled me. I wanted to be free to wander all through the catalogue. Fortunately, I found a way to have my cake and eat it, too. But what did my serendipity get me?
Looking back over the years since I left undergraduate school, I find that I have a peculiar vantage point from which to judge the value of what I received there. Not only have I been both a student and a teacher, which allows me to look, Janus-like, in both directions, but my experiences cover a rather broad spectrum. I’ve been able to test the worth of my liberal arts background against a variety of touchstones to see if it proved to be gold, or so much intellectual dross. I’m satisfied it turned out, if you’ll pardon the expression, to be golden.
My first experience of the world beyond school was the army where there are three kinds of officers: academy grads, field commissions, and ROTC officers. ROTC officers like me comprised about 85% of the officer corps at that time and most were products of non-military, liberal arts colleges. (Cadets at VMI and the Citadel also receive reserve commissions on graduation.) It was my experience that most ROTC officers, not having what we used to call a “military mind,” approached their duties in a more human and often more efficient way, treating their subordinates as people who happened to be soldiers, rather than the reverse. (We reserve officers used to describe ourselves as “civilians TDY to the army.” It wasn’t entirely a joke.) I noticed far less resentment and hostility among enlisted men and women for this kind of officer than for the more doctrinarian alternative. This observation received unlikely confirmation from a sergeant major who told me he preferred to work for ROTC officers because they were more likely to take time to observe the operation of a unit to which they’d been assigned, and to work with the people rather than issue orders from a training manual. In another demonstration of the worth of a humanities background, my CO often complimented me on my reports and written documents (the stock-in-trade of an MI office: the typing instructor at the intel school called the typewriter “an MI agent’s weapon”) because they conveyed all the necessary information in ordinary prose that didn’t sound like a military text.
Out of the army and studying acting in New York, I found myself among people with varied backgrounds. Many of the young actors with whom I studied and worked had been theater majors in college—some even as early as high school. I invariably found these actors limited not only in their artistic abilities, but, more importantly, in their general knowledge of literature, history, philosophy, and science. This had two repercussions in their work. First, they had less factual knowledge on which to draw when studying a role and, second, they had a narrower basis for their experience of life—an experience that is indispensable for any artist, particularly an actor. The best actors with whom I worked had all had the most eclectic intellectual backgrounds, though not all got them from college. (Many of the actors I met, especially the older ones, were self-educated. Others had studied diverse fields in school, including chemistry, law, and history—and one or two former divinity students.)
My own work as an actor and director is riddled with incidents where I drew on the most improbable knowledge. At rehearsals for The Skin of Our Teeth, for instance, I gave informal talks on animal biology (especially phylogeny, though I never used that word). As an actor in a production of Anouilh’s Romeo and Jeannette, the director asked me to read the original French text to see if there was anything useful for our production (and there was); I had a similar assignment from the director of Chekhov’s The Wood Demon for the Russian version. In a theater appreciation class where we were reading Alice Childress’s Wedding Band, which is set in 1918, I found that I had to explain to my students that an unnamed illness that was ravaging the characters in the play, including the male lead, was the Spanish flu pandemic that ravaged the country after World War I. Actors without a broad background have to acquire one on their own; those who never do are severely limited in their range and often produce shallow, superficial characters. While a liberal arts education cannot produce talent, ignorant actors cannot make full use of the talent they have.
Back at school for graduate work, I found myself again drawing on my liberal arts background. My doctoral department was eclectic itself, taking a kind of sociological-anthropological approach to performance; my broad-based education, filtered through my experiences in life and theater, again put me in a good position. Without the accumulated general knowledge built on my undergrad foundation, I would not have enjoyed myself so much, or done nearly so well.
Once when I was auditing Richard Schechner's Theories of Directing, I was astonished at the spectrum of fields covered in one session. The discussion focused on Vsevelod Meyerhold, the experimental Russian director. While it isn't unusual for visionary artists like Meyerhold to use eclectic interests and inspiration in their work, this class struck me as more far-ranging than any other I could recall. Schechner started off with a précis of Russian history from 1914 through the revolution and civil war to the rise of Stalin. From then on, the class touched, occasionally in some detail, on the form and philosophy of Socialist Realism and the works of van Gogh and Picasso; planetary orbits and the effects of gravity; ellipses and parabolas; the rise of the stage director; time-and-motion studies, Taylorism and industrialism; and Jean-Paul Sartre's belief that "Death converts every life to a destiny." That makes seven academic disciplines covered in one three-hour class: history, art history, astronomy and physics, geometry, theater history, social history, and philosophy. And those were only the major fields. Now, I can't say that I knew all about all these topics—Taylorism was new to me, for one—but I had a passing familiarity with most of them, enough, at least, to put them together with the main focus of the discussion.
This experience also illustrates what I’ve often tried to explain to my theater students: you can't really work in the theater successfully without at least an introduction to every other field of human intellectual endeavor. I once advised, unsuccessfully, a young student actor not to pass up a trip to Paris for a role (in the chorus) in a community-theater show. There would always be another community production, and a trip to Paris would benefit her forever. Paradoxically, a student who studies only theater—no matter how extensively—is no theater student.
In conjunction with my graduate studies, I worked in dramaturgy, a theater profession in which the broadest knowledge is necessary. The job of a dramaturg or literary manager may include reading and evaluating new plays; working with playwrights; translating plays and adapting non-dramatic texts; writing program notes; working with a director on a cohesive production concept; compiling historical, sociological, cultural, and political information about a play’s milieu or the playwright’s biography; providing in-house criticism; and planning lobby displays, educational outreach, and study guides. You don’t get the breadth of knowledge necessary to fulfill that kind of job from a specialized education.
I also taught undergraduate writing while I was a grad student, though I’d never previously studied or taught writing. On what experience do you suppose I drew? During the course, I led discussions on Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Albert Camus. My students wrote papers on, to name just a few topics, the creative impulse, Greek architecture, sports, Protestant fundamentalists, computer security, Soviet theater, and euthanasia. Without a liberal arts background, I could never have evaluated the work of my student writers—I wouldn’t have been able to understand what any of them was talking about.
After I finished my Ph. D. coursework, I found myself in a situation that proved to be the clearest example of the importance of a liberal education. I was hired as a part-time teacher of English and theater at a New Jersey high school. The theater class I taught obviously drew on my professional experience and training, but the English class required me to reach back into the general education I got in college nearly 20 years before. I started my ninth-graders off with Inherit the Wind, the dramatization of the 1925 Tennessee trial in which high school science teacher John Scopes was tried for teaching Darwin in violation of the state law. Over the weeks we worked on the play, I covered not only Darwin and evolution, the biblical story of creation, and the history of the actual trial, but the U.S. Supreme Court, our legal system, several constitutional provisions, newspaper reporting, basic biology, and a handful of other minor topics that cropped up now and then. (Let me point out that I covered those topics in class because they’re in the play—either in the text itself or in the atmosphere surrounding the plot and characters. Any actor or director who works on Inherit the Wind would do well to have a passing acquaintanceship with all those subjects, too.) Since we also spoke about other writings from time to time, questions and discussions occasionally ranged far beyond these topics, too. I found myself remembering things I hadn't thought about since college, and even since high school. Never before had I been so conscious of what I know and don't know.
Nowadays, I spend a lot of energy and time on ROT. Whatever its quality, I’m pretty confident that I cover a pretty broad range of topics and issues. Even in those articles that deal with theatrical matters there are discussions or passing mentions of an array of other subjects. Whatever I’ve been able to put together here, whatever connections I’ve made between ideas and trends, I was able to see them because of that liberal arts background. Whatever experience I’ve drawn on when I write for ROT (or any other outlet, for that matter) has been affected by the intellectual training I got 45 years ago and which has driven me to learn whatever I’ve learned since.
I thank heaven every day for my liberal arts education. Obviously, I never anticipated ending up in front of a high-school English class when I was in college, so I couldn't have prepared for that situation. The lesson, I think, is that the kind of education a liberal arts college provides is preparation for even some totally unlooked-for circumstances 20, 30, 40 years down the road. Now that's value for money! Soldier, actor, director, dramaturg, student, teacher: in all these capacities, and several shorter-lived ones as well, I couldn’t have gotten by without the broad, general background of the liberal arts degree—and those distribution credits my roommate wanted to avoid, plus the courses I took just because I was curious. Whatever little success I’ve made of my life, it all comes from that. Forced to think about it, I’m mighty glad I took the path I did at college. In this overspecialized, narrow-based world, a liberal education humanizes us.
[A version of this article was published as "Real-World Liberal Arts" in the Alumni Magazine of Washington and Lee (February 1986).]