The Oft-Hidden Fringe Benefit of a Liberal Arts Education

“In retrospect, it was so cheap. Only 30,000 a year for people to care about your opinion on art history!”

How does it affect the world to have people in school be told that their (often wrong and terrible) opinions matter? That someone actually cares about their ideas? How does this affect issues of privilege?

Even before grade inflation and students’ expectation of full feedback, students would perform work, someone from the establishment (TA or prof.) would peruse the work, and assign some sort of grade, sometimes with suggestions on how to improve.

But this is not generally true outside of undergrad classes. Questions are not so well defined, answers are often illusory, and generally many fewer people immediately care about the quality of one’s work.

Learning to accept these, I feel, is an important part of growing up. Teaching classes where things are not so well defined is inherently more difficult, and is generally reserved for extremely small class sizes. Illusory answers, or avoiding the ‘easy answer’ can also be difficult for many, as it requires significant introspection. This introspection can also be directed more easily in extremely small class sizes. One also needs to internalize the importance of the quality of one’s work, which is more difficult when someone in power is watching every assignment/essay/exam that one writes.

“No, it was a fantasy. All of those people cared about the quality of my work. Everything mattered so much.”

Perhaps marking of exams and essays persuades people to focus on the minutiae[1], rather than striking out[2] and saying something truly novel and interesting in the ‘real world’ that people actually care about. But maybe it’s important to have small, provable ideas.

But back to the original question. Is it a good or a bad thing to pay money for someone to care about your opinions on art history?

Those with more money can effectively pay to be seen as more important, those with less are forced into other disciplines, or more precarious positions.

At the same time, those in positions of less privilege may find it beneficial to have anyone at all in a position of power care about their writings[3].

“Everything mattered so much.”

When everything matters so much, it can disguise what is actually important[4], but it can also help find new important new things not discoverable by normal methods[5].

Thoughts? Comment below!

[1]I’m not going to address how formal education enhances conformity, that’s a well-known first-order effect.

[2]In this context, ‘striking out’ is an amusing auto-antonym.

[3]Although it can probably be even more devastating if those people in positions of power say that their writings are bad or unimportant.

[4]Analogy: Human civilization changing which traits are passed down.

[5]Analogy: Simulated Annealing.

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