In defense of the Liberal Arts 

So, one thing you may not know about me is that I make a kickass latte.

Stiff foam, creamy espresso, separated into five layers in a tall glass like a fancy French confection.

I consider it my second most impressive skill, next to gestating humans in my uterus.

I acquired this savvy right around the time I decided to major in the Liberal Arts, and what my parents drummed into me about that choice was that I needed a Back Up Plan. As in a trade that could sustain me as I plunked away on my Great American Novel or whatever I was planning on doing with my degree, because I sure as shit wasn't going to be doing it broke at their house.

My mother wanted me to get my manicurist's license like her friend's daughter, an aspiring comedienne who did nails by day and regaled Scottsdale by night with her hilarious pottymouth shtick. (That girl moved to Los Angeles and became Sandra Bernhard, whose screamingly brilliant routine you may have caught at Club One last Sunday.)

But I was all, omg, free coffee. As a nascent barista, I was schooled hard in the nuances of Arabica versus Robusta, cappuccino versus americana and why on earth Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee beans cost more than cocaine. I frothed two percent milk into cumulus clouds and perfected a sneer that could make someone bus their own table from across the room. I also learned a lot about people, watching (and oh yes, judging) as I thunked out spent grinds and unclogged unspeakably horrendous toilets.

My College Back Up Plan also kept me free to read and write surrounded by other literary nerds. Even more than the quadruple macchiatos, the rich academic environment kept my mind sharpening itself like a pencil with OCD, synapses snapping over William Blake and Henry Rollins' poetry and the correct placement of a comma.

I devoured many books, including Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast, a posthumous retrospective of his younger years in France with other expatriate intellectuals. Papa wrote that his time in Paris and its heady brilliance stayed with him no matter where life took him, an ever-renewing fount of inspiration.

I am no Hemingway and Javarama was no Champs-Elysées, but those coffeeshop college years became my Moveable Feast. I am a better person for having cleaned those filthy bathrooms, and whenever my well runneth dry, all I need do is call up the memory of debating Descartes over day-old scones.

"That's what a good education is supposed to do — to show students how to learn to love to learn," sympathizes Laura Barrett, Dean of Liberal Arts at Armstrong Atlantic State University.

Barrett gets the vital role that Liberal Arts (which includes English, art, history, political science, African-American Studies and other areas with nebulous money-making opportunities) play in a civil society. She worries that our culture's emphasis on skill subsets diminishes students' creativity and dampens curiosity.

"With this very focused look at job force development, we might be losing the real prize of a college education," Barrett speculates, defending the argument that the Liberal Arts model creates smart citizens who research important issues and participate in community life.

It also might be a college kid's best shot into the current job market.

Decent writing skills are the way to get noticed by human resources departments, and Mark Edmunson's essay "The Ideal English Major" went viral last month for its polemic that students most facile with language are the ones best prepared for the Real World.

"As it turns out, the employers we hear from are less interested in what your major is than whether you can develop an idea and communicate it effectively," says Barrett. "They can teach the 'how' of a job, but companies want people already versed in critical thinking, cultural sensitivity and collaboration."

True, a degree in English won't teach you to build a bridge, treat leukemia or bring down a Dementor. But the idea is that you could go on to pursue such things in an effective and compassionate way with a foundation based in the Big Ideas and a well-crafted set of directions (hopefully written by another English major.)

Even if you're long done with college, it's never too late for a little portable inspiration. Barrett, along with the faculty of AASU's Liberal Arts Dept., has styled a "A Moveable Feast Lecture Series," a year-long chain of cultural programs around the city to lube up our rusty brains just for the sheer joy of it.

Hosted by some of the city's architectural jewels, the series includes a visit from Columbia professor and National Humanities medal recipient Andrew Delbanco at Congregation Mickve Israel on Feb. 24.

The first lecture will be delivered this Thursday, Sept. 12 at the Old Cotton Exchange by Nicholas Mangee, AASU assistant professor of economics.

Wait, what? Economics is a LIBERAL art? Dude, that sounds like, useful.

"Economics is a social science, yes," assures Mangee. "It involves critical thinking, analytical skills and intellectual flexibility — and it requires being able to view the world from different perspectives."

He believes that in these uncertain times, those attributes will be far more integral to success, than say, an MBA.

"We're faced with unprecedented challenges economically not just in the U.S. but globally," Mangee continues. "We need the leaders of tomorrow to face these challenges without reducing things to polarities."

Though it may seem counterproductive, Mangee posits that a Liberal Arts education is one of the best investments you can make, because "progress depends on the ability to entertain new ideas."

So maybe that missive will keep the parents who are writing out fat tuition checks for their film and poetry majors from rolling their eyes. Hopefully they won't be as harsh as one father who, when informed of his son's decision to major in the Greek Classics, responded with a terrible letter that he was "appalled and horrified" and "almost puked" when he heard the news.

Fortunately for that mad dad, his son grew up to be billionaire media mogul Ted Turner, who presumably forgave him for being such a dick and bought him a condo in Boca.

Other than the strong suggestion of a Back Up Plan, my own folks were always supportive of my plunge into the Liberal Arts. (They were probably just relieved that Radical Arts was not an option.)

Steeped in caffeine and Chaucer, I was well-prepared for a host of bill-paying jobs when I stepped out into the real world armed with the most important life skills of all: Clean Up After Yourself and Ask A Lot of Questions.

But I keep my latte skills sharp, because you never know where the feast leads next.


For a full schedule of AASU's "A Moveable Feast Lecture Series," go to armstrong.edu.


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Jessica Leigh Lebos

Jessica Leigh Lebos

Community Editor Jessica Leigh Lebos has been writing about interesting people, vexing issues and anything involving free food for more than 20 years. She introduces herself at cocktail parties as southern by marriage.

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