TITLE: Failure and the Liberal Arts
AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford
DATE: June 17, 2011 12:28 PM
Many people are talking about Conan O'Brien's recent
commencement address at Dartmouth,
in which he delivered vintage Conan stand-up for fifteen
minutes and a thoughtful, encouraging, and wise message
about failure. We talk about the virtues of failure in
many contexts, including start-ups, agile software
O'Brien reminds us that failure hurts. It makes
us question our dreams and ourselves. But out of the loss
can come conviction, creation, and re-creation. Indeed,
it is in failing to achieve the ideals we set for ourselves
that ends up making us who we are. Your dream will change.
If you haven't seen this speech, check it out. It really
is quite good, both entertaining and educational. If you
are not particularly a fan of O'Brien's stand-up, you can
skip to 15:40 or even 16:15 to get to the important message at
I've been thinking about failure and liberal arts colleges
in New England in recent days, as my daughter prepares to
head off for the latter with a little fear of the former.
So this talk meant a lot to me. She isn't sure yet what
she wants to major in or do for a living. This has been
tough, because she has felt subtle pressure from a lot of
people that she should have a big dream, or at least have
a specific goal to work toward. But she likes so many
things and isn't ready to specialize yet.
So she went looking for a liberal arts college. Then she
hears a lot about unemployed English grads, students who
lack practical job skills, and 20-somethings with crushing
loan debts and no prospect of paying them off. That's
where the fear comes in...
But I think people are making a fallacious connection
between undergraduate education and professional prospects.
First of all, a student can go to school with a particular
job path in mind, amass huge debt, and enter a profession
that doesn't pay well enough to pay it off. I saw news
articles in the last year that talked about problems some
grads have faced with degrees in social work and counseling
psychology. There is nothing wrong with these degrees
per se, but the combination of low median pay and
debt amassed even at public schools can be deadly.
Second, and perhaps more important, many people seem to
misunderstand the nature of a liberal education. They think
it means studying only "soft" academic disciplines in the
humanities, such as literature, history, and philosophy.
Maybe that is what most people mean by the term, but I think
about it more broadly as the freedom to read and study widely.
Liberal arts majors are not limited to studying only in the
humanities. They can study literature and also economics,
chemistry, and international relations. They can study
languages and also political science and a little math;
history and also graphic design. They could even
learn a little computer programming.
The sciences are part of a liberal education. I think CS
can be, too. And the small size of many liberal arts majors
gives students the freedom to sample broadly across the
spectrum of human knowledge and skills.
The danger of a liberal arts education is that some students
and professors take it as license to study only in
the humanities. But the ultimate value of a liberal arts
education lies not in that narrow circle, as valuable and
rewarding as it can be in its own right. The value lies in
the ability to understand them, the ability to recognize
them, and the ability to work in them. It is
most desirable to learn something about a lot of different
things, even real problems and real solutions in the modern
world. Put together with a few key skills, the combination
Just as it's important not to be too narrowly trained, it's
important not to be too narrowly "liberally educated".
So I've encouraged my daughter not to worry about her lack
of narrow focus just yet. She has a lot to learn yet, most
importantly about the challenging problems that will vex
humanity in the coming century. Many of them lie at the
intersection of several disciplines, and solving them will
be the responsibility of well-prepared minds.