|Delta of Missouri Chapter Initiation
April 15, 2012
Accessible Excellence: Phi Beta Kappa at Truman State University
At one point during his campaign to be President of the United States, Rick Santorum took President Obama to task, calling him a “snob” for suggesting that everyone should get to go to college. “There are good, decent men and women who go out and work hard every day and put their skills to the test, who aren’t taught by some liberal college professor” Senator Santorum is quoted as saying. I’m not going to take political sides here- I’m sure we have both Democrats and Republicans within our audience today, both Liberals and Conservatives. Beyond just that consideration, is a more specifically relevant one: depending on how I choose to interpret Senator Santorum’s words, I can either applaud or question his point of view. As an experienced rhetorician with a Liberal Arts & Sciences University training, let me attempt to elaborate on both alternatives.
I agree that people who never went or will go to college are not in any sense lesser people than the college educated; that they most often are at least as intelligent and worthy of regard as any college graduate is a fact almost too obvious to need stating. I would seem especially ignorant and ungrateful if I held any other view, since I come from the working class and my parents and most of my relatives never went to college. It is precisely because I grew up in a family of construction workers, cops, plumbers, nurses, and in a neighborhood of people within that same range of professions, that I came to understand how many different kinds of intelligences there are, and having spent some time myself as a plumber’s helper, I came to see first-hand that it takes a lot of smarts to figure out the physics, chemistry and geometry involved in fitting pipes properly, the detective work of finding and curing a troublesome leak, the public relations skills of having to let someone know she won’t be able to take a shower for another day or two. So, yes, I’m right with Senator Santorum when it comes to admiring
people without college degrees who work for an honest living. But I still have to call into question the idea that someone is a “snob” for wishing college for all. As a Professor I guess it’s clear I’m not unbiased, but I’d be ready to argue with anyone, from any walk of life that college is a good thing, and not only because, as Liz Weston points out in her article responding to Santorum, the median wage for people without college degrees “has been falling for decades as well-paying manufacturing and union jobs disappear or get shipped overseas.” Weston points to the simple statistical fact that the typical college graduate will earn twice as much over a lifetime as a typical high school graduate. Those are sobering facts, ones that would make most good parents desire college for their children whether they themselves went to college- even as good parent Santorum, a college graduate with two advanced degrees himself, is presently sending his eldest daughter to a private Catholic University, The University of Dallas. But I’d argue that even for those who are skilled enough to have jobs that would pay as well or better than some jobs open to college graduates, plumber, electrician, Real estate agent, that college would still be a wonderful choice for them, especially a Liberal Arts and Sciences education, because college’s best gifts to its student s have never been and never will be most importantly about finding one’s way to the best pay check, even as important as that usually has to be.
For the past year here at Truman we’ve been hearing a series of lectures our President commissioned from faculty members from our various schools to address the viability of maintaining a Public Liberal Arts & Sciences University at a time when people are questioning the value of such an education and enrollments in some liberal arts colleges are down. These talks have been initiated under the pressure of a growing concern that with college being as expensive as it is, parents should think more than twice about continuing to send their children off to four or more years of education in the liberal arts, rather than in some practical field that will ensure a job. How can Truman continue in its mission if that mission isn’t serving the best interests of its students? What can anyone do these days with a BA in History, Philosophy, French or Art? We have heard some fine, intelligent and sensible
responses to that commission by the President, but each has served, at least implicitly, as a kind of apology for Liberal Arts and Sciences, an attempt to prove you can still get a good job in spite of majoring in English, Music, Russian, Interdisciplinary Studies, along with an emphasis on other ways a liberal arts education may be good for you, like spinach and broccoli are good for you. To me it’s not the very best approach. Yes, of course I know that a Liberal Arts education is good for students in a practical sense, in part precisely because it doesn’t just train you for one profession. I have a niece who trained to be a Physical Therapist’s assistant, a field with lots of openings at good pay, but after graduating, and not from Truman by the way, she found she could not really handle the day to day workings of such a demanding and surprisingly high pressure job and now is working part time for minimum wage wondering what her certification as a Physical Therapist’s assistant might be good for. I have a brother-in-law who took a two year program in computers but then found after graduation that there weren’t that many jobs in his small town in that field, and that his wife did not want to move- he’s driving a truck. On the other hand, I know a student with an MA in English who did a creative thesis in fiction writing with me and went on, years later, to become a successful investment banker, a second with similar academic credentials who owns his own advertising firm and lives in Laguna beach, a friend who majored in Spanish at NYU and also owns her own successful advertising firm, and a number of my former English students, who were not “Pre-Law” but who are now successful lawyers. But those kinds of arguments can always go back and forth. After all, there are certainly some unemployed or under employed Liberal Arts majors, even a few from Truman, and there are lots of Physical Therapy majors who have well paying jobs they love. But the evidence for the value of a liberal arts education is so much greater than anecdotal, is so apparent and common-sensical that no sustained series of lectures and apologies should have been necessary. Most especially at Truman State, the value of a Liberal Arts & Sciences degree, in every sense of the word value, including the most narrowly pecuniary, should be obvious to all. In fact, I can prove the value of a Liberal Arts & Sciences education in a most practical rather than theoretical or Romantic way, just by sharing with you a short list of place names. Here they are.
1)Harvard, Princeton, Yale, MIT, Stanford, Cal Tech, The University of Pennsylvania, Columbia, Duke, The University of Chicago.
2) Williams, Amherst, Swarthmore, Pomona, Middlebury, Bowdoin, Carleton, Wellesley, Claremont- McKenna, Haverford
3) Creighton, Butler, Drake, Valparaiso, Xavier, Bradley, John Carroll.
Yes, you recognize those as names of colleges and universities. The first ten I listed were the top ten Universities in the National University category, of the rankings done each year by U.S. News and World Report, the next ten were their top ten rated liberal arts colleges, and the last seven were the seven schools ahead of Truman in the Regional U. Midwest category.
Let me point to some obvious things anyone, college educated or not, should be able to conclude from these lists, with very little help. Enrollment in Liberal Arts colleges may be down somewhat overall, a reflection of the reality of our present economy, but enrollment is not down at any of the schools I’ve listed. I don’t think many of us in this room would be surprised to know they aren’t having any trouble getting way more applicants than they need at Harvard or the Univ. of Chicago, at Williams or Bowdoin or Middlebury, or even at Creighton or Drake. Now, of the twenty seven schools I just listed, over a dozen of them are defined exclusively as “Liberal Arts Colleges” and all but two of the twenty-seven have outstanding Liberal Arts emphases and traditions among their offerings; the only two specialized or “technical schools” of the twenty-seven, in any sense, are Cal Tech and MIT, although, the truth is, you can major in literature, creative writing and even Chinese at MIT and in English, Economics or Philosophy at Cal Tech- I looked it up. I also know that at least one Pulitzer Prize winner for
literature, Junot Diaz, who majored in English at Rutgers and in creative writing at Cornell (What’s he going to do with those degrees? I’m sure his parents wondered) is now teaching creative writing as an endowed chair at MIT.
Here’s another thing, these twenty-seven schools are all very expensive, with tuition and room and board ranging from the mid 30’s to about 60 thousand a year, so all of them are several times more expensive than a TSU education. So, who goes to these schools? Think about it- who goes to these very best Universities? The children of people with a lot of money, and/or some really brilliant scholarship students- in fact the most well off and the most brilliant parents and students in the country and even the world- that’s who goes to and pays for these schools. What does this tell me or you? That people with money aren’t in a panic in questioning the value of a liberal arts education. They aren’t considering sending their kids to computer schools or technical schools, aren’t insisting they learn a trade, aren’t questioning the value of a curriculum that asks them to read literature, philosophy, do advanced Math, study a foreign language or two. People who are moderately to very well off know it is well worth it to get a Liberal arts and sciences degree from Harvard or Pomona, Creighton or Yale or Duke. And that should be the end of the discussion. That should be it. There is no need for an apology or even an elaborate consideration. Because people who know how to hold onto or make money, they aren’t running away from those top twenty-seven schools I’ve listed in three different categories of size and location. Top flight private liberal arts and sciences colleges will always attract smart people with money, even as the U. of Dallas, not even making our list, and not even as highly ranked as Truman, attracted the Santorum family.
So, if enrollments are not down at these top schools what does that tell us? It tells us, perhaps, that it is disingenuous to tell the poor and the lower middle and middle class not to feel badly about not sending their children to college and to have them go off and learn a trade instead or work as a clerk or
a waiter. The people with money will continue to bank on the value of a Liberal Arts degree, even while some of them insist that “you people” don’t need or want such an option. And, sadly, many parents are falling for this idea, since the easy thing is to question the value of the thing you can’t afford- heck, I didn’t really need a car that much anyway- rather than just being full of regret for the wonderful and necessary thing beyond their children’s reach.
What has any of this to do with Phi Beta Kappa or Truman State? Well, I’m glad you asked. Truman State U., the Public Liberal arts and sciences University for the state of Missouri, is far, far less expensive than any of the twenty-seven schools I listed. It is the top public institution in the Regional Universities Midwest category; the other seven ahead of it in the regional category are all private schools. But is TSU as good, really, as those private schools ranked above it? How can a TSU Liberal Arts degree be worth as much as one from Williams or Princeton, the University of Chicago or Butler? The argument that a degree from Truman might be worth at least as much as any of those other schools has its readiest confirmation in the very existence of Phi Beta Kappa on this campus. Most of you probably don’t realize what a miracle it is that you have the opportunity to enter Phi Beta Kappa from a school that was, when I got here in 1983, Northeast Missouri State University, a former teacher’s college, in small town Kirksville, aptly drawing most of its students from its geographical area. Always a good school at a fair price, our University was transformed via its mission change into a highly selective Liberal arts and sciences school, a kind of “public ivy” and the transformation was so convincing that Phi Beta Kappa came on board- an honor held by only about 10% of all the schools in the country, a far lower percentage of which are public Universities. If you look around this room you’ll see the faculty who are Phi Beta Kappa members, many of whom went to the top liberal arts and sciences schools in the nation, Haverford, NYU, Duke, the University of Chicago, to name just a few. The jewel in the crown of any student who attends any of those top schools is admission into Phi Beta Kappa, the oldest and by far most prestigious honor society in America. Yet, those of you now who have been admitted to our
numbers, got to do so for at least $100,000 fewer dollars than your contemporary fellow students who are in similar ceremonies around the country this week, at places like Cornell, Bowdoin, Wash U . or Yale. Truman State, a State University, offers the kind of liberal arts education the rich folks of this nation still unequivocally favor for their children, but offers it at a price that those who aren’t rich can manage. But the value of that bargain basement education is made golden again by this gold key (show my key) this assurance that your degree is the equal of the degrees from the most known prestigious private schools. This is why the title for this talk is accessible excellence. I don’t know why you chose Truman, but maybe, in some cases, in was because your family just couldn’t afford to send you to Williams or Grinnell, to Amherst or Stanford. I once had the then Governor Ashcroft’s daughter, Martha Grace Ashcroft as a student in Comp I here at Truman- her family sent her here for one semester, as she finished high school a semester early. Her teachers were hand-picked and it was planned from the start that she would only stay the one semester; during a visit to my office, she told me she had to decide whether she should next go east to Amherst or Mt. Holyoke or west to Stanford- I never did find out which one she chose- I hear she’s a lawyer now. My point is- not all of us can be as well off as governors most often are, can’t just send our children to one expensive private school or another. But for as long as we can resist the impulse to apologize for the Liberal Arts education we deliver here, and for as long as Phi Beta Kappa sees fit to endorse and support our chapter, all qualified students will have access to an education as fine as what the rich folks can afford for their children and as capable of sending those children off to be leaders with a credential that will never be questioned. You students who we have initiated into Phi Beta Kappa today, not only have made your parents proud by your outstanding personal achievement and scholarship, but also by how you have made them feel wise for having opted for accessible excellence, with a credential that will never be questioned, and always be recognized- a gold key is a gold key, no matter how much or how little you paid to have access to it. And its value, as a symbol of the highest level of achievement within the parameters of the still
most useful and respected degree available, the liberal arts and sciences degree, will never be questioned. Congratulations. And thank you.