“What do you do with a degree in religious studies?” my dinner companion asked, referring to his son, a Kenyon College senior and friend of my daughter’s, an American Studies major.
“Get a job, we hope,” I said.
We were attending an event planned by the college to see Liberal Arts, the movie written, directed and starring Josh Radnor, who graduated from Kenyon in 1996.
Radnor plays 35-year-old Jesse Fisher, who works as a college admissions officer in New York City and returns to the campus to attend a retirement dinner for one of his favorite professors, played by Richard Jenkins. He meets Zibby, a 19-year-old student (Elizabeth Olsen) and they begin a hand-written letter correspondence, where they discuss literature, life and music (she had given him a mix-tape cd based on her music survey course.) On a return visit, he confronts the 16-year-age difference, and fends off an intimate encounter, only to succumb to another former professor played by Allison Janney, (Kenyon’82).
Filmed on campus, and in the surrounding Gambier, Ohio, sprinkled with references to literature and music, the movie celebrates liberal arts; its purpose and relevance that many convocation and graduation speakers address. The concept dates to the Greek and Roman philosophers who identified the Seven Liberal Arts or pillars of wisdom: The Trivium- the verbal arts comprised of logic, grammar, and rhetoric; and the Quadrivium, or numerical arts, consisting of mathematics, geometry, music, and astronomy.
To study liberal arts, one is expected to achieve well-rounded, diverse exposure to many topics. The degree prepares one not for a specific vocation, but hopefully infuses the ability to think critically and creatively. Survey courses in art and music stay with you forever, informing cocktail party conversation and inspiring cultural tolerance.
The film is particularly relevant to me right now. I have a daughter about to graduate college, anticipating entering the workforce, and two nieces and a nephew, high school juniors beginning their college hunts. The 16-year-olds are deciding: do they want a large university or a small school? City or country? East or West Coast? Distribution requirements or complete freedom? Will they be able to play sports?
After the movie, I joined another set of parents on the subway. They wondered what their daughter, an International Studies major, would do with her degree. We joked. “Liberal Arts! They can do many things!”
(I wrote about jobs and college graduates here.)
If you’re a parent beginning this process, you might like this book.
I have an essay in it.