The Liberal Arts Paradox

Colleges generally and liberal arts colleges specifically will constantly espouse inspirational platitudes. But do they empower their graduates to live them?

Kendall Hollimon
Jan 3, 2020 · 5 min read

When I learned that Claremont McKenna College offered Introduction to Economics, Black Intellectual Studies, Playground Games, and Metaphysics I knew I had found an institution multifaceted enough to accommodate my diverse interests. I entered expecting to have my ideas challenged, my worldview shifted, and my horizons expanded. And they were. Studying at a liberal arts consortium has been everything I dreamed and more. It is only now that I graduate that I see how ephemeral my sojourn at this utopia has been. Compared to the “real world” my erudite paradise seems to be a paradoxical establishment. Here’s why:

Ivory Towers & Echo Chambers

As a breeding ground for the next (and often current) generation of thought-leaders, liberal arts colleges allow bright young minds to interweave into a tapestry of vibrant discourse, creation, and expression.

But, the tapestry seems to be mostly the same color.

It’s not game-changing to claim that small liberal arts colleges, especially on the coasts, are just that: liberal. Their interweaving brick and mortar halls have the perfect acoustics to serve as echo chambers, where liberal ideas reverberate unmuffled and unresisted.

I remember one exchange with one of my classmates which threw my college’s blue background into sharp relief. A friend and I were discussing thesis topics, and I expressed an interest in arguing that prisoners should have the right to vote. She shot me an inquisitive glance and replied, “So you believe in prisons?”

And these institutions are just as bourgeoise as they are progressive. Coastal elites intermingle in million-dollar dorms, pontificate at professors’ houses and spiel at symposiums.

It would be unfair to claim that all students descend into these oases from ivory towers. My college’s financial aid office can attest that I certainly didn’t. But even students like myself from “low-income” backgrounds are instructed by a hidden curriculum. This inescapable elective teaches all students to shed the habits of the have-nots in order to succeed socially and economically. Whether through social pressure to dress a certain way, mandatory formal meals, or a constant bombardment with networking opportunities, students are shown the mold of success into which they must squeeze themselves.

Change The World (But Not Too Much)

I write this article not to decry liberal ideas themselves, I subscribe to many of them. Nor am I attacking my 1%er friends, I genuinely love them. I only seek to note the ideological homogeneity that obtains among the (sometimes) diverse student body.

Understanding this, the paradox of liberal arts colleges becomes apparent: they encourage radical thought but discourage radical action. With rigorous pre-professional training and ample opportunities to network, my school has prepared me to enter into the capitalist rat race that I have been simultaneously taught to question. In giving power to trustees that have won the same rat race, the school allows its policies to be shaped by the people who have benefitted most from the current social, political, and economic status quo.

Colleges generally and liberal arts colleges specifically will constantly espouse inspirational platitudes. They claim that, with the comprehensive, versatile education they provide students are perfectly poised to change the world. Such optimistic rhetoric is belied by the way in which these colleges empower their students. Graduates can change the world, but not too much, and only by achieving traditional economic success. I have seen countless classmates passionately advocate for establishment-shaking progressive initiatives only to apply to consulting and lobbying firms that pay them handsomely to argue the opposite. Even optimistic undergraduates are not immune from the siren song of the almighty dollar. Students already know professional choreography, having wined and dined with professors and polished their résumés until they gleam.

A Poor Reflection of the Real World

Perhaps the value of liberal arts education allows lies in its ability to give its beneficiaries the tools to obtain enough money to reshape the future. Often however, this money is squandered on donations to the college that it uses to continue the cycle. Donating priceless sculptures and splurging on expensive alumni weekends is touted as the perfect way to spend the fortune the college has helped one amass. The artistic philanthropy of alumni, however, is a far cry from the radical justice discussed in any high-level political philosophy class.

Colleges that do not empower their students to succeed in the status quo have an alumni network of considerably lower net worth (if one measures net worth by how much capital one has been able to amass.) Without donations from graduates, these schools are less able to provide career assistance, studies abroad and coveted faculty. These institutions must adapt to the economic system in which they operate simply in order to survive, and in discouraging their students to do the same, they hamstring them. Liberal arts colleges are not immune to the harsh realities capitalism, no matter how idealistic their student bodies may be. They can only hope to be a brief respite from the incessant demands of the workforce.

Each liberal arts institution is faced with a dilemma, do they align their priorities with their students’ ideals, or do they betray the very ideas they advance? The ones that want to survive seem to choose the latter. Whether one sees this adaptation as hypocritical, practical, or commendable, the fact is clear: liberal arts colleges are shockingly poor reflections of the real world. They represent, instead a beautiful academic arcadia. I am unendingly glad to have studied where I did, but my institution has encouraged me to imagine one world, only to thrust me into a completely different one.

Kendall Hollimon is a writer for the Golden Antlers.

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