It has been many years, 60 in fact, since my formal education ended. Controversy was just as much in vogue then as today regarding the subject of a liberal arts major. Why waste a degree on the humanities, as some said; was it a proper training for life?
I graduated from high school in 1947, the son from an immigrant family who had no thoughts of higher education; a job, making money was the prime emphasis of life. It took two years working as a laboratory technician before it became obvious to me that advancement was not in the cards without a college degree. I selected Franklin and Marshall College, Lancaster, Pa., because it had good liberal arts courses, close to New Jersey, my home, and was all male; less distractions.
F&M, at that time, had two required courses for graduation: religion and public speaking. Just like other incoming freshmen, I felt the courses could be tolerated, but not enjoyed. I was wrong. Those two opened my eyes, as no others. Religion gave me a basis for thought of who I am and why am I here. The Bible was taught as history from the time of Moses through Paul’s journeys. In retirement, the people and places I visited in Italy, Israel and Jordan were as real as I had read of them as an undergraduate. The struggle of secular vs. church power was an eye-opener that made its history come alive. It wasn’t just dates and name, it was the movement of empires and establishment of nations.
Public speaking gave me a platform from which to express myself; to speak and be acknowledged. These lessons proved invaluable for the sales and marketing career that lasted 40 years until retirement in 1995. Varied course selection gave me an opportunity to choose: three years of chemistry, physics, bacteriology, three years of English, one year of French, psychology and a number of history courses, my major.
In history, I found teachers who taught reasons behind the development of nations. Paul Toth taught European history with a quiet dignity that left no stone unturned until we knew how Europe was formed from the 14th to the 20th century. Fred Klein taught modern history through newsreels. This, I thought, was like dying and going to heaven; all that was missing was popcorn. We witnessed the Crimean War, Russo-Japanese War, WWI and WWII, the rise of Communism and the Depression.
Elias Phillips opened up a world of self-expression in expository writing. He handed out magazines such as the (long-gone) Saturday Evening Post featuring Norman Rockwell covers and advised us to write a 500-word essay on Rockwell’s subject. My imagination went into high gear and, as it turned out, was the nucleus of a writing career 25 years later: over 500 essays for three newspapers, a myriad of articles for sales and marketing magazines, a book, “Humor Is Life’s Lubricant,” and innumerable reports that resulted in advancement to managerial positions.
Three courses in English helped immensely in understanding the rights of man from the Magna Carta to the Declaration of Independence. Chaucer, Shakespeare and Dickens provided a primer in understanding life as it was lived then, as well as now. “Canterbury Tales” by Chaucer, the father of English poetry, tells of a religious pilgrimage in the Middle Ages by a group of people, of different social classes and the result of their association. Shakespeare’s “King Lear” tells of the fate of kings; “Ulysses” gave me a close look at the Greek siege of Troy; “King Henry V,” his victory at Agincourt and the king’s glorious statement, “We happy few, we band of brothers.” Dickens, the social reformer, was enlightening in detailing the law vs. the poor, social evils culminating in the conflict between the aristocracy and the lower classes, privations of boarding schools and the corrupting influence of wealth in the rising middle class. It was a “primer” for understanding life as it’s lived today.
The New York Times, June 19, revealed that a 61-page report, “The Heart of the Matter,” shepherded by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, was to be delivered this day on Capitol Hill calling for increased support for “endangered” liberal arts due to low humanities enrollments. It called into question the present administration’s emphasis that “a science education risks diminishing a huge source of the nation’s intellectual strength.” The commission is prepared to show that 51 percent of business leaders regard a liberal education as “very important.” In fact, many of the country’s most successful people had exactly this kind of education: President Obama (political science major), Mitt Romney (English), most of the 54 members of the commission: distinguished jurists, business leaders, scholars, university presidents and politicians.
I’m indebted to liberal arts for opening a world of opportunity, for without understanding the world and myself, what worth would I be to an employer?
Robert D. Campbell, an essayist who lives in Newburyport, believes that a sense of humor is essential.