I was scanning the IE3 Alums Facebook group wall today when I noticed an interesting article posted by Giustina Pelosi. In Live and Learn: Why we have college, Louis Menand reviews two critiques of the current state of higher education while exploring different theories as to its purpose. Among other insightful ruminations, the article contrasts the ideas of college as society's proving grounds for specific career readiness and college as a means of gaining exposure to material that enlightens and empowers, whatever career one ends up choosing.
In the article, Menand reviews a book entitled "Academically Adrift" by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, which offers research that supports the thesis that completion of college is proving ever less sufficient as a measure of having progressed intellectually. While he does not hasten to agree, Menand does engage in a more fine-grained analysis of Arum and Roksa's findings, and he points out some interesting distinctions. Of particular interest to me was the comparison between students who major in liberal-arts fields (sciences, social sciences, and arts and humanities) and those who major in non-liberal-arts fields such as business, education and social work, communications, engineering and computer science, and health.
Arum and Roksa found that liberal arts students tend to show more improvement on a test that measures critical thinking and problem-solving skills than did non-liberal-arts students. Despite suggesting that there may be flaws in Arum and Roksa's research, Menand goes on to relate the (admittedly anecdotal) findings of another author who goes so far as to suggest that students who aren't majoring in a liberal arts field shouldn’t be exposed to subjects such as literature and creative writing. In the end, as one might expect from an article in the The New Yorker, the place of the liberal arts education as the great bastion of intellectual development is afirmed.
As I read the article, and the many fascinating statistics it cites, I couldn't help but reflect on how its conjecture and the arguments of the books it reviews might be applied when considering the motivation and relative success of volunteers in the Peace Corps. While the obvious reason to give for Peace Corps service is to have a try at improving lives and to promote mutual understanding between the United States and the peoples of the world, it is perhaps equally valid to acknowledge the opportunity it gives the volunteer to become a more complete person who has a variety of life experiences.
Neither of these motivations is specifically in keeping with either the more vocational path of college education suggested by Menand or, conversely, with his supposed intellectual enrichment path, but it seems reasonable to imagine that someone more interested in what joining the Peace Corps would do for him or her in the context of a specific career might fit more neatly into the former category while a person who is more of an open-ended seeker of adventure might be more closely aligned with the latter.
What makes the Peace Corps interesting in this context is that it treats both types of volunteers the same. Whether you join because you are giving serious thought to a career in international development or because you want to take a couple of years to examine your life and interactions with others, the result is the same. After ten weeks of training, you are assigned a community and tasked with doing whatever needs done to improve the lives of its members. After two years, the status you have to show for it is no different from any other person who has chosen to spend two years of their life in this way.
For my own part, I think this lack of differentiation played a major role in my decision to join. At some point during my college career I came to understand that a liberal arts degree from a small private college was the ticket to a peer group to which I wanted to belong. Unlike the the Groton boys in the article, however, I did not belong to a priveleged class inhereting the legacy of their fathers. Likewise, I was not the beneficiary of the GI Bill or part of the first generation in my family to attend college. I was merely an obedient kid who did as he was told and enrolled myself at a university. Like so many things in life, it wasn't until I had already begun that I discovered the path I wished I had taken.
In the end, it was probably for the better. I wound up in a cooperative program that afforded me some work experience in my major which in turn financed a six month trip to Guatemala to finish my Spanish language minor and experience life in another country. I took my life in a rewarding direction that would not have been available to me without the college career I had chosen. And I did it without saddling myself with a lifetime's worth of debt. It is in the same spirit of intrepid pragmatism that I have taken the leap of faith into the Peace Corps.
Like my college experience, the two years of service ahead of me offer a kind of promise that is open-ended and exploratory. Unlike in college, though, my decision not to analyze classic literature or debate finer points of philosophy will not come to bear on the opportunities available to me when I am finished. This time I proceed with the expectation that I will change during years to come in ways that I cannot anticipate. What purpose it serves is up to me.