Friday, May 13, 2011

A Liberal Education: A Degree or Knowledge?

 A liberal education can best be described as one which offers a "generous" (liberal) offering of study from many different fields or disciplines, art, history, science, mathematics and sociology, with a specialization in one, the one you "major" in.

When I went off to college as a dreamy, ideal teen I had no idea what I was getting into. My High School experience had been rocky, though I loved school and had excelled in it up until my Junior High School years.

Before this, I was an model student, an avid reader, one praised by all my teachers. What hit me in the 7th grade was girls, and a rebellious spirit whose need for attention became my downfall. Once, I arranged for every member of class to drop his/her book on the floor at a prescribed moment during class. They loved me for it.

It only got worse in High School, where I began running with some shady characters, being disruptive in class and ditching school until one day we got caught shoplifting some stuff from a smoke shop in downtown Modesto and were escorted by the police back to school.

I was sent to see the Dean. He was a gruff old man, and everybody was afraid of him. Mr. Rhodes shook his head. "I just don't understand, Richard, how you being such a good kid is running around with this kind of rift-raft". His words touched me. At the same time I was awarded first prize in an annual AAA Safety Poster Contest which inadvertently brought me all of the attention I was seeking. This time for the right reasons.

When a couple of my art teachers began to talk to me of college, the thought had never once entered my mind. To me college was for the White Kids, the smart ones, the rich ones. We were poor. We lived in the barrio on the south side of town. I did not know a single Mexican who went to college.

For this reason, my mom actually tried to talk me out of it. "College? What a dreamer! You actually believe what your teachers are telling you? How will you pay for it? How will you support yourself? In this society Mexicans are always on the bottom. Take it from me, I know."

But thanks to my rebellious spirit I defied her and left for college assured that I would make it somehow. But what "it" was I did not really know. Loaded with an armful of scholarships I embarked on the most amazing journey of my life... getting an education... and I loved it.

I ate it up, every class and devoured the books. My teachers were masters in their own right, some moonlighting at our small private college from the prestigious University of California, Berkeley and I loved them and the knowledge they represented.

While it was an art school, we were immersed in liberal studies and many students resented it. "We are artists by God, so why do we have to take all these stupid courses that have nothing to do with art? In my Junior year on a lark, I ran for Student Body President and won! I was frightened to death at the duties this small town boy was getting ready to assume in this office, but I excelled despite my fears of public speaking.

As fate would have it, that very semester, a student rebellion began to brew, prompting several spontaneous protests on campus, their anger directed at the administration for making liberal studies a requirement. One day the president of the college called me into his office. I was paralyzed at the thought of having to face the college president! "Richard, I am calling a student assembly to respond to the issue of Liberal Studies requirements and I want you to speak in support of the requirement."

"Wait a minute, me? Speak?" The thought paralyzed me. "OK", I stuttered and stumbled out of his office. While I thought the protests were uncalled for because I had always been taught to respect authority, I felt a shaky loyalty to the students and they wanted me to speak out in favor of their demands! I was torn and uncertain of exactly what my position was. I had simply accepted the institutional notion that liberal studies was good for us. It was good for everybody. But on the other hand, if we were just going to be artists, what good would it possibly do us?

As the day of the dreaded assembly drew near, the student unrest grew and there was even talk of walkouts, and my fear escalated to terror. What would I say? Who would I back? I knew what the students wanted me to say but I knew the college president expected me to support the college. The auditorium was packed and noisy, rowdy even.

I was introduced by the president to speak. I wanted to disappear, to run, to hide. But there was no hiding. I dragged myself to the podium. The crowd became silent. I swear to you now, that even at that moment I did not know what I was going to say! Would I throw down the gauntlet, defy authority and stand chest to chest with my compatriots or would I turn coat and throw my support to the enemy!?

I stood there like an idiot, my moth dry, my palms sweaty, my knees trembling. And then the words slurped out of my mouth, like a spoonful of hot soup that has just burned your tongue: "My fellow students... we must stop all this nonsense. The administration is right...." I could not even finish the sentence before the booing and jeering began. I was humiliated as I saw many of my friends, those who had loyally supported me, shaking their heads in disgust. My mind shut down. I had just betrayed my own people, abandoned them in their hour of need. I was a disgrace as their president.

I don't remember how that assembly ended or what ensued in the subsequent weeks but in time the unrest dissolved into the mundane comings and goings of college life and I was shunned by many of my classmates. But truth be told, now that I look back at it decades later, I had been simply too damned scared to speak out against authority. If only I had meant what I said. But things that are done, cannot be undone.

When I was finally hired as a Chicano Studies teacher some 10 years later, and I walked into that first classroom, it wasn't art that allowed me to survive and thrive as an educator, it was the Liberal Studies that gave me a broader view of every single topic I discussed in my courses and I thanked the powers that be for that beautiful, incredible generous helping of knowledge they gave to me. It cannot be measured, it cannot be quantified, as it is beyond value, priceless.

And now, I wish for one thing. That with what I know now, I could relive that moment, that raucous student assembly and I could say "Look, you jerks. Whatever it is you want to be or become with your college education, an artist, lawyer, cook, teacher, doctor, you will be better at it with a liberal education! Go back to your classes,and shut up, listen up, pay attention and enjoy the act of learning, enjoy knowledge for its own sake without regard to what good it will ever do you in the future. Knowledge is its own kind of power, a keepsake, a pearl of great value that can never be taken from you."

Oh well, maybe next time.

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