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William E. Smith III, Indiana University Bloomington

Will Smith.jpgTo start, an anecdote. I read a book called Ordinary Men by Christopher Browning (1992) in a class while an undergrad. I have never shaken free of the story it told. Browning’s historical narrative traces the descent of men into monsters. These Germans were basically good in the general sense of the term. Or at least they were until tasked with massacring Jews during World War II. Initially repulsed by their assignment, they quickly found the duty to kill easy and it even became a sort of game to them. My understanding of human ethical nature remains partially shaped by Browning’s tale of horror to this day.

I share this tale with students during advising sessions when our conversations warrant it as an example of what a person might gain from taking a class. Learning this long-term lesson was possible because I participated in a liberal arts education. Yet I am not sure how to translate this value into economic terms, or if it ever could be so rendered. But economic terms—valuing education for its employability payoff—is the main game in town. I fully agree that students’ ability to earn good wages, ideally through reasonably satisfying work, is a valuable thing. Yet I fear that what students will not learn from local and national cultures suffused in the rhetoric of a degree’s potential economic value is an ability to speak the languages of other educational goods.

For advisors who work in liberal arts milieus, I believe one of our pressing obligations to our students is to become more fluent in the language of these alternate values. Tasking ourselves with this duty will help us to aid our students in understanding the potential post-graduation implications of the “logic of their curriculum” (Lowenstein, 2005). Such a move challenges advisors to pivot, at times, the temporal axis of advising from the synchronic focus of Marc Lowenstein’s model (2005) toward diachronic ends.  In other words, we should advise with an “and/and” logic regarding the future. In doing so, this approach also reveals that there is an interminable practice of reinterpretation involved in this approach to the conceptualization of the curriculum. While advisors can guide students toward some post-graduation possibilities, it is the student’s responsibility to continue this reflective process upon graduation.   

A recent argument made by Amy Lewis (2012), a business professor, provides a launching pad for thinking about non-employment based values of liberal arts classes. Lewis muses on the example of a GAP t-shirt with “Manifest Destiny” printed on it to demonstrate why business students need liberal arts classes in order to help maintain “a vibrant economy” (Lewis, 2012).  This t-shirt provoked strong criticism, created a PR scandal, and proved a waste of design, production, and marketing resources (Lewis, 2012). If only GAP employees, Lewis insists, had taken courses in American history, sociology, and ethics that discussed the history, legacy, and ethical implications of manifest destiny, then GAP would never have sold the t-shirt in the first place and could have used it resources differently (Lewis, 2012). Yet Lewis’s argument points us in another direction when it comes to identifying alternative values. The protest around the t-shirt is an example of consumer criticism in action.

Consumer criticism is a particular form of cultural criticism, which is a core value enabled by a liberal arts education (Guterl, 2011; Roche, 2010). Students can become more insightful consumer critics by taking a variety of liberal arts classes, thus accruing a range of analytical and interpretative skills that enable them to assess synthetically new situations and determine when and why they should protest a product or company. Of course, if a class or series of classes covered relevant material to the matter at hand, then this scenario would add even more to the connective value of an undergraduate education to post-graduation life.

At times more formalized “introductions” to a post-graduation craft are available to students. At my university, for instance, students can earn a “PACE” certificate. PACE stands for political and civic engagement. Comprised of course, seminars, deliberation-oriented issues forums, and an internship, the PACE curriculum offers students opportunities to relate theory and practice and link aspects of their individual degree paths to forum discussions and internship projects. One student I advise, for example, has made connections between his sustainability-oriented studies and his individualized portions of the PACE program. PACE, in the end, arms students with the necessary skills and experience to be more effective, engaged participants in the public sphere. It is a pedagogy of personal formation of the self as democratic citizen.

Alternately the non-economic value of liberal arts classes can be more personal, even if, at times, still communally oriented. While the point of religious studies courses, especially at public institutions, is not the advance or detraction of personal religiosity, some students inform me that taking religious studies courses impacts their own religious life. One of my religious studies advisees, for instance, shared with me that she regularly draws upon material from her classes when participating in a variety of church activities as well as her own theological thinking about life and the world. In other words, her case models how former students can employ what they have learned so as to be an “enricher” of self and elective communities.   

In a time of fierce economic trials, it is easy for us as well as students to fixate on job preparation. But we must not fall into the alluring mistake of advising students as only aspiring employees. Instead, we should cultivate an advising practice that narrates multiple educational payoffs for our advisees, including, but not limited to, employability. I have covered a few forms the educated self can take: the consumer critic, the engaged citizen, and the “enricher” of self and elective communities. By helping students master this approach to understanding their own educational experiences we aid them in being able to continually reconstruct the logic of their curriculums after graduation. In making this move, in turn, we advisors become prophets of the possible. 

William E. Smith III
Academic Advisor, College of Arts & Sciences
Indiana University Bloomington
[email protected]


Browning, C. (1992). Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.

Guterl, M. P. (2011, June 30). The humanities are more important. Insidehighered.com. Retrieved from http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2011/06/30/essay_defending_the_humanities

Lewis, A. (2012, November 5). Why history matters. Insidehighered.com. Retrieved from: http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2012/11/05/essay-value-liberal-arts-business-students

Lowenstein, M. (2005). If advising is teaching, what do advisors teach? NACADA Journal, 25(2), 65-73.

Roche, M. W. (2010). Why Choose The Liberal Arts? Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 160-162.

Cite this article using APA style as: Smith, W.E. III (2013, June). Prophets of the possible: On valuing the liberal arts. Academic Advising Today, 36(2). Retrieved from [insert url here]
Posted in: 2013 June 36:2


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