For the love of liberal arts

by Amy Henry

Posted on Friday, September 5, 2014, at 2:56 pm

It was Day 3 of our marathon teachers’ meetings last week when we learned one new student would not be attending our school after all. 

Her parents, while at first enthusiastic about our small liberal arts school, grew wary when they learned how little we charged for tuition. Coming from the private school across town that charged three times what we do, you would think the lower cost would be a selling point, but in this case it was a red flag. After thinking it over, they decided they couldn’t “trust” anyone who would teach for “just a living wage.”

This announcement stunned me. Gathered to my right and to my left around the large oak table in the meeting room were some of the finest teachers I have ever known. One taught drama at Harvard. One is an author and PBS documentary maker who takes his students to Civil War reenactments. One puts as much effort into grading my daughter’s history presentation as my daughter did preparing it. The teachers at the table brought not only expertise in their various fields, but also a passion for their students and for the liberal arts. One of our teachers rejected a higher paying job to teach here. True, none of us make more than a living wage; some make even less than that. But that makes it even clearer that those who do choose to teach here do it for something more than money.

The Atlantic, as part of its “Big Questions” program, recently released a short video called “What Will a Liberal Arts Education Look Like in 50 Years?” It’s a question worth pondering. As the liberal arts continue to move further and further to the edge of the educational radar screen, I wonder if in 50 years any but the kookiest, old-fashionedest schools will offer even a basic humanities class. If Homer becomes something only a stuffy professor in an attic office thinks is important, if higher education continues to be about job-getting instead of life-getting, the outlook is grim. Are the liberal arts becoming antiquated, doomed to go the way of the dictionary, the road atlas, and good ole conversation?

This year, my middle schoolers and I will sit in what used to be the sunroom of a 200-year-old house and dig into, yes, Homer, but also Shakespeare, Gilgamesh, and The Canterbury Tales. My colleagues will drill Latin vocabulary, conjugate Greek verbs, memorize Blake, and teach Euclidian geometry. All of us will do it for barely a living wage, true, but I would rather have my children sit in such classrooms, studying under teachers wearing holey shoes who are more fired up about what they teach than educators in the most expensive schools in the country.

Vive the liberal arts!

Amy Henry

Amy is a married mother of six and a WORLD correspondent from Kansas. Follow her other "scribbles" at Whole Mama or by reading her book Story Mama: What Children's Stories Teach Us About Life, Love and Mothering. Follow Amy on Twitter @wholemama.

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