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Grand Valley State University's Beacon Since 1963, Allendale, MI
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The “Goldilocks Zone” for Liberal Education

The “Goldilocks Zone” for Liberal Education

A couple years ago, a good friend of mine studied abroad in Crossmaglen, Ireland. When he came back, he told me a story that, every so often, still traipses forward from the outer fringes of my memory. One day during his trip, a few students were in their hostel drinking and talking when a local bartender, whom I’ll call Mark Brady, paid them a visit. The group of them had been deep in a conversation which grappled with aesthetics and the visceral beauty of human complexity when Brady walked in. Being the brash character he is, he interrupted.

“Oy, oy, oy, oy,” he told them, “That’s all a load of shiste.”

He proceeded to tell the group how philosophical conversations don’t mean “shiste” when someone can break into your house, beat you up, and drag you, bloody and in your boxers, through the middle of town. As you can imagine, this very thing happened to Brady. Crossmaglen is perched in a tense sociopolitical atmosphere where the citizens’ beliefs are at odds with those of the law enforcement. When you’re frightened for your basic liberties, Brady said, airy, non-practical speculations about the world don’t hold much water.

This anecdote gave me a new perspective on liberal education. Having a liberal education is wonderful, but obtaining one requires a “goldilocks zone” of social, economic, and political factors. Historically speaking, colleges like ours, which pander to the middle class, are an anomaly.

America sits in this “goldilocks zone.” We haven’t faced prolonged attacks on our home turf since the Civil War. We’ve shifted away from an agricultural or manufacturing-based economy to a more service-based economy, where fewer and fewer jobs are rooted in arduous, physical labor. Advances in technology, medicine, and social thought have created a culture where the quality of life for the average man is much higher.

It all boils down to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Once your physiological and safety-based needs are met, it’s far easier to access the loftier aims of liberal education and self-actualization. When these lower-tier concerns are in jeopardy, however, accessing education can be far more difficult.

A couple of my other friends (and fellow columnists!) give back to the community through an organization called Job Corps, which helps low-income young adults obtain their GED or high school diploma. These people, struggling with poverty and teen pregnancy among other obstacles, have difficulty seeing the practical value of discussing Plato or Aristotle's notions of rhetoric. When you’ve got a child clutching your ankles asking for toys you can’t afford, it can become difficult to prioritize the long-term effects of liberal education and critical thinking.

By no means am I arguing against the benefits of a liberal arts education. That being said, stories like Mark Brady’s and the Job Corps’ students remind me how fortunate I am to receiving the education I am. So often, it’s easy to gripe and moan about my unwieldy to-do list and how many essays I have to write, but the truth of the matter is: we’re pretty dang lucky to be able to have such #firstworldproblems.



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