Thursday, June 19, 2014

A Fox or a Hedgehog?

Liz Reed is an Adult and Information Services Library at the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood, Massachusetts.  Read Liz's column in the June 19, 2014 edition of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.

I recently returned to my undergraduate alma mater for my five-year reunion.  St. Lawrence University (SLU) is a small liberal arts college nestled in the river valley between the Adirondack Mountains and the St. Lawrence River in Northern New York State.  New York State covers a huge geographical area, and in this case, “northern” does not mean just north of New York City, or even near Syracuse or Rochester.  The university, located in Canton NY, is at the tippy-top of the state, about a half hour drive from Canada.

The village of Canton is small, less than 7,000 people, and sports a quintessential small town main street.  SLU has a population of roughly 2,400 undergraduate students and 100 graduate students, causing an annual boom and bust in the town’s population.  The university fosters a strong sense of culture among the students, which results in a robust alumni network of approximately 33,000 alums.

Technically, this was my four-year reunion, but SLU invites class years in clusters; this was the first reunion for the classes of ’08, ’09, and ’10.  Additionally, graduates from those class years going back in five-year increments, or affinity years, are also invited.  Personally, I’m hoping to one day bump into actor Viggo Mortensen at reunion, since we share affinity years.  All alumni are welcome at any reunion however, and 2014 hosted the largest reunion to date, with over 1200 alumni and guests.  The weekend was full of walks down memory lane, hanging out with old friends and meeting new ones, catching up and filling each other in on our latest adventures, and generally making happy fools of ourselves while reinforcing those aspects that create such a strong St. Lawrence culture, i.e. hockey, harsh winters, and Mikey’s Specials from Sergi’s pizzeria.

If my enthusiastic attendance at reunion didn’t drop the hint, I’m very pleased with my undergraduate education, and I feel a strong attachment to my alma mater.  But, why St. Lawrence University?  And for that matter, why college?

I always knew that I would attend college, and like many American high school students, worked very hard in my coursework and extracurricular activities to make sure I stood out on college applications.  Also like many other high schoolers, I began receiving a great number of emails and physical mailings from colleges around the country, all explaining why their institution was the best choice.  I quickly figured out that a four-year liberal arts education, also known as the arts and sciences, would be the best fit, since I did not have a strong drive for one subject over another.  I wanted to learn EVERYTHING, and a liberal arts program would give me that flexibility.  Finally, SLU was able to offer me the best financial aid package, and with an annual price tag of around $42,000 when I started (SLU now annually costs around $60,000), financial aid was a major consideration.

There are a couple important points to unpack here around the question of the value of a liberal arts education.  One brochure I received during the fevered college search raised a question that always stuck in my mind, and that I think captures the essence of liberal arts beautifully: “Who do you want to be?  A Fox or a Hedgehog?”  In their description, foxes and hedgehogs are different but complementary, and both very important.  A hedgehog is someone who has a narrower focus and is an expert in their discipline, or in other words is someone who does only one thing but does it very, very well.  A fox on the other hand is someone who has some knowledge of and experience in many different things, or who is a jack of all trades, master of none.  The hedgehog is a specialist while the fox is mutable to many different situations.

A liberal arts education gives students this flexibility to try different academic disciplines and gain a broad range of skills and perspectives, allowing them to become foxes.  Or, students can discover and pursue their passion, becoming hedgehogs.  I certainly did not know what I wanted to do after college, and was glad to have this space to learn and grow.  Giving students a broad range of inquiry has other benefits, as well.  By taking courses they might not have otherwise chosen, students are introduced to diverse ways of thinking and being in the world.  By not pigeon-holing them on a set academic track, students can follow independent paths of inquiry.  Also, a mix of coursework provides a healthy balance.  For instance, I chose to double major in Sociology and Performance and Communication Arts (PCA – what other universities call Speech & Theatre).  This blend stimulated both my left brain and right brain with alternating high-concept academics and hands-on creativity.  To those parents who are shuddering at the thought, yes, your students CAN make something of themselves with a Theatre degree.

One of the ultimate goals of liberal arts education is to inspire lifelong learning in its graduates.  This sort of inquisitive, open-minded, critical, balanced citizen is a vital part of society.  Increasingly however, the liberal arts education is falling out of favor and receiving less public funding, for a number of different reasons.  A degree from a four-year liberal arts institution does not lead to a job in the same way that a degree from, for example, a technical college may.  In the recent push toward science, technology, and mathematics to the exclusion of the arts and humanities, we are closing off opportunities for students to grow and learn creatively, and become critical thinkers.  More than that, by encouraging students to only think like hedgehogs, the foxes among them will not reach their full potential.

There are economic realities, of course, and being set up for a ready job upon graduation is no small thing to ignore.  As someone who graduated in the worst of the repercussions from the recession, believe me when I say I understand this consideration.  Much has been written about the education debate, and on many more angles than I’ve had space to explore here.  The Morrill Memorial Library provides access to the Opposing Viewpoints database, which is a great resource for finding valuable, well-researched arguments on hot topics.  You can find this database in the Reference and Research section of our website.  For physical books about the liberal arts debate, educational opportunities, and how to fund that education, browse through the 300s section at the library, paying close attention to the books with call numbers beginning 331 and 378.  Stop by the reference desk for help finding something specific.

Another undeniable benefit of a four-year liberal arts education is the networking opportunities and friendships it inspires.  I will always be part of the St. Lawrence community, and that’s a strong network to have.  I am a Laurentian, a Saint, a Guildie, an Advocate, a Techie – for life.  And I can’t wait for our next reunion.