So, Um, What’s the Value of a Liberal Arts Education Again?

From John Lingan’s “They’re All Zombies,” about a new craze sweeping colleges nationwide:

Now that the game has been embraced by students at a dozen-odd other colleges, we can see its proponents for what they really are: kids who view college as a four-year playground.

These students exists at any school—hence the popularity of H v. Z at bigger campuses like the University of Maryland and Bowling Green State—but it’s telling that this game originated on a 1350-person campus like Goucher’s; something about the self-contained small communities of liberal arts colleges enables students to waste their time in such needlessly complicated ways. As a recent alumnus of such a school, I’ve seen that most undergraduate humanities majors were able obtain a GPA in the B range while doing barely any work. (The same can’t be said for science majors, it should be noted.) I have no idea what kind of work ethic Temkin and his cohorts have, nor do I know the average grades of H v. Z players, but they are familiar types insofar as the Post portrays them.

Their confidence suddenly boosted after leaving high school (and home), these proudly “weird” kids find themselves with a dearth of necessary schoolwork and a whole new audience to impress with their superficial quirks. Maybe they wear a funky hat or cut their hair into a Mohawk. Maybe they stop wearing shoes around campus or start throwing a Frisbee in obviously inappropriate spots. Or maybe they buy 10 Nerf guns and stop going to class, the better to focus on their 24-hour-a-day zombie fantasy. “[A] player’s life can be entirely consumed by the game” during H v. Z, writes Quindecim interviewer Asa Eisenhardt. The Post article abounds with descriptions of the participants’ months-long preparation, the time-consuming strategy involved, and, of course, the necessary hours spent convincing the administration that H v. Z is a legitimate way to spend time.

I wasn’t the greatest student in undergrad, I admit. I was terrible at German and while I read lots of books, I didn’t read any of them well. Still, I posted this elsewhere on the Internet, and it’s definitely true:

Between sophomore and junior year I felt dumb, so I read all three of Rousseau’s Discourses that summer, the Social Contract, as well as Mill’s “On Liberty” and “Utilitarianism.” Then that junior year, I had Western Political Thought, so that was Aeschylus, Plato, Aristotle Cicero, Augustine, Aquinas (each in brief), and then the second semester junior year was a course on Wittgenstein (the C+ I’m proudest of), and I wrote some 30 odd pages on “Paradise Lost,” which I must have read something like 10 or 20 secondary sources (about 3 or 4 full length books were just a few of those sources) on.

And from then on, I took as much philosophy as I possibly could – the semester after that was Descartes, Locke, Leibniz; an intro to logic course that was fairly demanding; a classical phil. course that covered the Presocratics, some Plato, some Aristotle… you get the idea. Again, I didn’t read much well, but no one can say I didn’t try. So it is heartening for me to see statements like John Strassburger’s “For the Liberal Arts, Rhetoric is Not Enough:”

The faculty developed a two-semester program required of all first-year students, what became known as the “Common Intellectual Experience.” It involved professors from across all the departments teaching in small sections, having students reading seminal thinkers from East and West to confront the “big questions”—those reflecting on the meaning of life, purpose, and values.

Over the years, writers like Plato and texts such as Gilgamesh, the Book of Genesis, and the Bhagavad Gita, along with those by Descartes, Darwin, and other leading thinkers have ignited heady discussions among students.

Creating that two-semester course around the big questions supposedly at the heart of liberal education was more or less a leap into the pool without checking for water first. It was an act of faith. But it turns out that what we suspected all along is, in fact, true. Anyone spending time with 18-year-olds knows that they are consumed with moral questions, mostly in terms that Immanuel Kant would recognize. They want to know about their obligations to their families, girlfriends, boyfriends, or teammates. They wonder if being rich will bring happiness, or whether happiness will be found in relationships or through serving others. Of course, they also wonder if they will be good at something—good enough to make a decent living or even to excel—and whether they will become wealthy or famous. [emphasis mine]

Strassburger’s statement is good enough that I would use it as my own introduction to the liberal arts. And yet, you will notice that one of the colleges Strassburger cites as working in his own school’s vein is Goucher, the school that brought us the H v. Z game.

I can preach all day, but I’d rather leave off here and go into Philadelphia and take a walk. Comments are requested. I’ll just say this: I do poems on the blog because 1) they’re entire texts, despite being short 2) they push you to speak another’s voice aloud and see as they see, hear as they hear. Moral questions are important, so important they probably need to be the center of campus life, and most certainly part of daily life. Of Socrates it was said that he never stopped asking what justice and virtue were.


  1. The article’s thesis is a tissue of silliness. The zombies meme started and is most popular among technical types – *not* liberal art types.

    How can we know this? Look at the article: it uncritically accepts that in 2007 it was confined to a liberal arts college. But as it happens, I personally knew the fellow at Rochester Institute of Technology (hardly a bastion of liberal arts) who was running similar games in – 2007.

    See .

    And no one regarded it as particularly innovative, because it was an obvious heir to the campus-wide Assassin games run at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology).

  2. I can’t disagree more about the experience in undergrad. Surprisingly, it took sitting and talking to graduates at dinner to really make me focus on my work.

    Having spent all of my undergraduate years pondering questions of morality, justice, virtue, and everything else I can’t say enough how important it is to have kids 18-22 study these questions. Do I agree in making a freshman read Immanuel Kant or Friedrich Nietzsche? No not really, but Plato or Aristotle can give them a good grounding.

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