The Paradox of the Liberal Arts Education
In the spring of 2016, I was a junior at Saint Mary’s College of California -- a beautiful and tiny liberal arts school tucked in the Oakland Hills. And I was royally pissed.
My rage was indebted to several coalescing events: the school’s health center declined to provide contraceptives (again), the campus has been tagged with ‘Trump’ in several locations and was making no public effort to investigate, the Black Student Union got egged during a school event, my school’s YikYak was overrun by homophobic posts after the PRIDE club created a rainbow mural on campus, I nearly got suspended for ‘cyberbulling’ my school’s republican club (I called them the ‘where’s the clitoris? club’ on snapchat) and the school administration had launched a social media campaign entitled #SMCcares showcasing students and alumni who channeled their liberal arts education towards social justice and action. The ironic juxtaposition of all these things was too overwhelming, and I along with several friends/co-conspirators began organizing student protests to illuminate our grievances.
We called ourselves ‘End the Silence' and our demands shaped into asking administrators to employ more transparency into policy, and to incorporate student voices in school-wide decisions. We just didn’t understand the bureaucracy and hesitancy that arose when we voiced what we felt were valid concerns, particularly since we attended a oriented liberal arts school that toted its commitment to social justice on social media, but not in interactions with actual students. For example, when our protest group covered the school in posters with our demands, we got reprimanded for posting without permission from Associated Students. And when we asked the Student Activities Office why, when both the Black Student Union and the Young Republicans Club were late with their 2017 funding proposals, the Republican’s club received a pass and the BSU didn’t -- the office just stopped replying to our emails.
This being my first run-in with bureaucracy fueled disenfranchisement, I was furious and incredulous with the treatment we received. Just the year before, I had taken a class at Saint Mary’s about the history of Drag Culture in the Bay Area, and had participated in several, meaningful school wide community service projects. I didn’t understand how these could both be the same school, and neither could many of my friends and peers. Citing the pillars of the liberal arts education, we called out areas of hypocrisy in school policy where it appears that leaders within the administration didn’t appear to value discourse or new ideas. As Freire might say, the educational praxis we were engaging with did not feel meaningful, because it didn’t feel as if it belonged to us. Saint Mary’s wanted us to engage with liberation of the mind, but didn’t want us to engage in praxis, for we were limited in the actions we could take based on our gained conscientização: “if for a person to be in the world of work is to be totally dependent, insecure, and permanently threatened -- if their work does not belong to them -- the person cannot be fulfilled, (Pedagogy of the Oppressed, pg. 145).
I also kept a blog at the time, and wrote an essay about my thoughts while in the thick of this spring 2016 reckoning. You can read the whole essay here, if you want (though I first ask you to forgive 20 year old Kat for her grammar mistakes and cliche-riddled writing style). In the blog post, I go over several specific incidents on campus and my thoughts on them, but I’ve included the thesis of my argument below:
“The Saint Mary’s Community has a culture of silence and complacency. When it comes to addressing systemic problems within the culture of the Bay Area or the larger context of the United States, professors and faculty happily invite us to question authority.
However, when it comes to addressing problems within our own community, we are met with a furrowed brow, a condescending smile, a closed door, a repeated, cult-like mantra: There are no problems on the Saint Mary’s Campus. We are an inclusive community. SMC Cares. SMC Cares. SMC Cares. SMC Cares. There is no war in Ba Sing Se.
I would be able to tolerate this injustice on other campus. But not Saint Mary’s. You cannot call yourself a liberal arts community, one who is concerned for the poor, the systematically disempowered, the socially marginalized, and deplete our resources. You cannot say you care about students and social justice, when you are self-serving, biased, and play into favoritism.”
Retrospectively, I’m sure there were complex obstacles to the demands we student protesters were presenting that I’d have more compassion towards as an adult than as a 20 year old student. I am more aware now of the complex ecosystems within institutions, and how limited one is as an individual employee to enact meaningful and systemic change. Still, I couldn’t (and can’t) shake that the liberal arts oriented curriculum I was exposed to as an undergrad student didn't match with the bureaucratic setbacks we experienced in our interactions with administrators.
When I toured SMC as a young teenager, I learned from a department chair that the ethos of the liberal arts education was to ‘liberate’ one’s mind. This effort for Saint Mary’s students was probably best represented through the Seminar program. Seminar is a mandatory class for all SMC undergrads, and there’s a section for all four years. You take the class with about 9-10 folks in your grade, most of whom are outside your major. The class size and student demographics are all intentional -- designed with cooperative and collaborative dialogue in mind. Here’s how the program is described on Saint Mary’s website (I didn’t add the bold):
"A small group of students and a professor sit around a table and talk about books. They argue; they theorize; they question. They examine passages closely and connect them to other passages, other books, other experiences. They talk about ideas as living things."
I was enamored with the concept of Seminar when I toured SMC as a high school student. I recall thinking I’d finally found the pathway outside of my gossipy, all-American, football and agricultural loving small hometown, and would finally discuss big ideas with people who cared about the same things I did. I pictured myself having articulate arguments about politics, religion, duty, feminism, racism, philosophy, and God. And when I was offered a huge scholarship by SMC’s admission team, my path to liberation felt both fated and inevitable. And in some ways it was; in my Freshman year, the Seminar curriculum catapulted me headfirst into Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, The Odyssey, Martin Luther King Jr’s Letters from a Birmingham Jail, The graphic novel series Maus, Sophecles’ Antigone, assorted Virginia Woolf writing, and Malcom X’s The Ballot or the Bullet (just to name a few of my favorites). Coupled with my introductory gender studies and English courses, I felt my brain wading towards critical consciousness.
I certainly approached my undergrad university’s liberal arts education with a heightened romanticism, but the great irony of the Seminar program is that it equipped me with the very texts I later cited in student protests. The administration literally handed me the books I’d later use as evidence of their hypocrisy. I can’t help but wonder why they did this when their responses to student protests were largely ones of exacerbation and downplay.
During undergrad, I worked in my college's Intercultural Center and Women’s Resource Center. I was lucky to have adult mentors who supported our student protests while supplying us with administrative insight and context. I recall the moment in which my boss at the Intercultural Center, Legacy, shared with me this quote that perfectly encapsulated the frustrations I had with the college (bold added by me), “The paradox of education is precisely this--that as one begins to become conscious, one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated,” and this sentiment helped me realize that a part of critical consciousness is realizing you might be ‘outgrowing’ the institution in which one’s reflection was first prompted. (James Baldwin, 1963). It helps me understand that concepts I idolized when I was younger were complicated by the real world circumstances of social justice and experience.
One of the first feminist writers I fell in love with was Virginia Woolf. I carried my copy of A Room of One’s Own around with me as a teenager, cradling it like a bible. I still love this book, and find its sentiment of the inherent power of intellect incredibly powerful and resonant. When I read certain lines from it, I still get a chill down my spine: “Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.”
And then, my freshman year of college, I encountered the writing of Gloria Anzaldua, who took A Room of One’s Own white feminist manifesto and turned it on its head:
“Forget the room of one’s own - write in the kitchen, lock yourself up in the bathroom. Write on the bus or on the welfare line, on the job or during meals, between sleeping and waking. I write while sitting on the john. No long stretches at the typewriter unless you’re wealthy or have a patron - you may not even own a typewriter. While you wash the floor or clothes listen to the words chanting in your body. When you’re depressed, angry, hurt, when compassion and love possess you. When you cannot help but write.”
(Gloria Anzaldua, ‘Speaking in Tongues: A Letter to 3rd World Women Writers’)
I recall reading this line, highlighting furiously, and thought, “God, I’ve been so wrong.” -- and in my opinion, this is the liberal arts education at its best. Of course Virginia Woolf's writing resonated with me, but Anzaldua's words liberated me from my own limited perspective. And it wasn't easy. Perhaps we downplay the embarassment necessary in the pathway to critical consciousness. But it was still worth it. It is still worth it.
I’ve largely made peace with the structural challenges I encountered at Saint Mary’s College, especially knowing there are still a number of faculty members who listen to students and encourage them to question policy and push for progress. Maybe that same James Baldwin quote has been an 'aha' moment for other students. But I nonetheless maintain a quiet, creeping, and nagging voice in the back of my head -- that perhaps the Saint Mary’s board of directors would benefit with a Seminar class of their own -- though perhaps not in a room of their own, armored by seclusion and enamored with their own conceived self-importance. While writing this essay, I reached out to some of my friends who I went to college with, and asked them to recount their memories of our student protests and the liberal arts education. One of my close friends responded, "I think the president needs to reread Pedegogy."