The true value of the liberal arts

Who are you?

When you strip away your iPhone, your laptop, your grades, and every possession to which you claim ownership…who are you?

We are absorbed by consumer culture. A culture that allows us to identify ourselves by what we have—as markers of our status in the world. A culture that dominates everything we do, including our participation in the system of higher education.

We are obsessed with “prestige” and “reputation.” Colleges are becoming nothing more than brand names we can slap on our cars, our clothes, our water bottles, and anything else fathomably possible. In order to feed this consumer culture, admissions offices have transformed into marketing departments. Across the nation, colleges are in an amenities arms race to have the most beautiful campus, the most delicious food, the most spacious dorms, the most attractive student body…the list goes on and on.

Our consumer ethos is winning and we are losing sight of what college should be about. Education is an active process, not a good that you can simply purchase and obtain. Oftentimes, students don’t fully engage with this process. Instead, they go through the motions, striving to get straight A’s, quickly congratulating themselves, and then moving on with their lives. Students must be more than consumers of knowledge. Students must also be creators of knowledge.

We all want to be great and whether or not we openly admit it, we all think we’re going to be great. When we’re not great, we all feel a bit robbed. But what is greatness?

We have this extremely specific idea of success, so to get a C in a class or to be poor is to be a failure. Our culture values material things so much that what counts as “success” has become so narrow, it only looks one way. We struggle to even imagine an alternative vision of success besides getting all we can and making all we can. Trapped by our consumer culture and this idea that there are only two types of people in the world—winners and losers—colleges are creating profit makers, people who think of money first, second and third because these are the “winners” of society. Perhaps, what society needs are not winners, but self-reflective and thoughtful citizens.

Citizens who can walk into a room with one perspective and leave with another. People who see others as human beings with thoughts and feelings of their own who deserve respect and empathy.

While many may argue that a liberal arts education is a luxury, I disagree. When it’s done right, a liberal arts education is a necessity. It frees you from a life of desperation—desperate to receive validation from others. It saves you from becoming someone who clings to conformity and is afraid to deviate from the status quo in fear of alienation. It teaches you that to be someone other than yourself is a real form of failure. Students who leave college with a better sense of who they are are the ones who thrive in the world. They thrive because they have alternative visions of success and they thrive because their life has meaning, whatever form that takes for them.

College is a time when you have the potential to find yourself in relation to the world. Maybe you’re the person who you thought you were, who your parents thought you were, or who your friends thought you were…but maybe you’re someone completely different. What you learn in college can change your life. Ideally, it should change your life for the better.

So amidst the fast-paced academic and social arena we call college, stop and think about why you’re here, who you are, and more importantly who you want to be. Keep your Colby car decals, your Colby embellished Vineyard Vines, and your Colby Nalgenes, but also keep your individuality. Challenge yourself to step away from the conformity of consumer culture for a minute and reflect on what matters most to you.

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