In Defense of the Liberal Arts Major

or How to Break Big News to Your Parents


Max is a freshman business major at a Big Ten East Coast college. He wanted to be a business major and said he’d probably double major in accounting and economics. For years, some of his heroes have been titans of business. He had it all planned out and his parents, that would be Mike and me, were on board.

 Recently, I received a text from Max, asking me the names of some of the “famous” people I used to work with at the major investment bank where I spent 18 formative years of my life: Mildly surprised at the question I quickly (for me) texted him back an answer and a flurry of texts flew back and forth.

 It turns out Max was writing a paper for his English class and part of it is about me. I’m flattered he even remembers what I used to do in myhigh flying career that occurred mostly when he was just a little boy. He asks me if I’d be willing to read it for accuracy.

“Of course,” I say.

So I wait for the email to arrive.

And wait.

And wait.

It arrives in my in-box at 1:30 a.m. in its entirety, long after I’ve gone to bed.

How do you take your tea?

 I sit down with a morning cup of tea and begin to read. With his permission, I’ve reprinted parts of it here. Remember, to know Max, a charming rogue of a young man, is to love him.

 The paper begins with both truth and humor (and I might add the family we are with is Mike’s side) , always a compelling mix.

 “Not too long ago my extended family gathered for a small barbecue. No other activity can so deftly combine the great facets of life: conversation, alcohol, and meat. I have tackled numerous topics over the years with my family at these culinary functions and luckily have only just begun to indulge in the second facet, which hopefully indicates I may have retained some of these lessons for life. As we met up for the last time before my cousin and I headed off to college my aunts and uncles tried to leave us with as much information as they could think of to motivate us in our search for knowledge and hopefully a marketable degree. The overarching commonality between the advice of the degrees present, “I am doing nothing at all related to the degree I earned at University. My main strength was my ability to communicate and that got me to where I am today.”

            I am used to taking family advice with a grain of salt, if not because of the sometimes-inebriated state of advice around the kitchen, than because I generally don’t see myself walking directly in the footsteps of my elders. This conversation really got me to thinking though: Why am I here, in a Liberal Arts program?

           Since I was first weaned on “Pat and Matt” books in a summer camp before I entered Kindergarten I have been blessed with the ability to read and an appetite for books that I seldom saw in other students I matriculated with. This seemingly basic ability has allowed me to excel in and develop my favorite subjects, namely history and English. A broad base of literature has allowed me to rise through school with what I think is relevant knowledge and a knack for communication that helps me every day. My mother calls it the gift of bullshit.”

 It segues into a description of what I used to do, talks about how ‘self-directed’ liberal arts majors need to be to succeed, then he compares today’s students, business versus liberal arts. He constructs intelligent comparisons and presents compelling analysis. Wow. And this is our son.

 I read the last two paragraphs, by this time glowing with pride at what I thought was a really well-thought-out and well-written paper:

 “No true American student should ever be unable to identify Omaha Beach (my roommates), or Aristotle (fellow English student), or where Germany is on a map (strike two for my roommates). Basic foundations and ideas are all well and good, but we must stick it to Liberal Arts majors to go beyond the call of just squeaking by and graduating with “some degree” to go on to “some job”. The fire and passion of Aristotle is gone from all but a few classrooms in today’s university system, and those classes are run by teachers today’s college students think are too hard and sometimes wholly Satanic for assigning more than just the most basic of papers. We must give those few educators the power to create more brilliant minds and that means giving them quality raw material to work with.

I entered “Big Ten School” with the intent on majoring in Accounting. I thought my understanding of business and markets uniquely suited me to a business degree. As economic events continued to unfold, however, I became more and more disenchanted with the profit-driven focus of business and public outcry against those whom I thought were the geniuses of our time. Instead, I’ve changed my focus and switched into the College of the Liberal Arts. I hope to earn a major in History and satisfy my own quest for knowledge of something bigger than fleeting business tactics and ephemeral stock market transactions.”

  . . .and then it sinks in. 

History. . . History? Max changed his major to history? Did he tell me that and I don’t remember? He will say that I just don’t remember; that he did tell me he changed majors, no big deal. And for a split second I’ll believe him, knowing that I’m middle aged and sometimes can’t remember what I had for breakfast let alone what he told me a week ago. But then I’ll remember that I’m talking to Max, Mr. Smooth, and I’ll know that the first time I heard it I read it in his paper.

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2 Responses to In Defense of the Liberal Arts Major

  1. Carole says:

    I can’t stand it… sounds just like him and he sounds just like you!! If he is OK with it I’d love to read the whole paper…..

  2. Ah. He would love for you to read it. I’ll send it along later today. Kinda got you in the gut, uh heart, huh?

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