The return of liberal arts? 

“Hi. Where’re you from? What’s your major?”

Sure, it’s a cliched college pick-up line, but the answer to the second query can reveal a lot about the career aspirations, interests and personality of the person answering — sort of an adult version of the childhood quiz “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

In Savannah, with so many places to get degrees, the answer to “What’s your major?” can range from “Anesthesiologist Assistant” at South University to “Special Education” at AASU; from “Accounting” at SSU to “Mechanical Engineering” at Georgia Tech/Savannah.

For Anita Matchett, her response to “What’s Your Major?” would often be greeted with skepticism by her wait staff colleagues during her enrollment at Savannah State University. That’s because Matchett majored in English Language and Literature instead of a so-called “career track” degree during her college years.

“I would get responses like ‘English majors are a dime a dozen, what are you going to do with that?’” says Matchett.

SSU’s English degree is just one of several traditional liberal arts degrees available at Savannah-area colleges and universities. Without leaving Chatham County, a student pursuing a liberal arts education can choose from about a dozen undergraduate degrees at SCAD, Armstrong or Savannah State such as History, Music, African American Studies, Performing Arts, Spanish, Painting and Art History.

Liberal Arts graduate degrees are more limited locally. For years, SCAD’s Masters of Fine Arts in Painting and Art History, and AASU’s Master of Arts degree in History were the only local options.

This year AASU received approval from the state Board of Regents to add the Master of Arts in Liberal and Professional Studies (known as MALPS at the university).

Armstrong is also home to perhaps the most traditional liberal arts degree programs in Savannah -- the Associate Arts (AA) and the Bachelor of Arts (BA) degrees in General Studies.

“Technically, it’s Armstrong’s oldest program,” says Dr. Richard Nordquist, AASU’s Director of General Studies and Faculty Development. “When Armstrong College opened downtown in 1935 as Armstrong Junior College, the one degree approved was an Associate Arts degree in Liberal Studies. In the 1960s the Liberal Studies degree kind of fell away.”

In the early 1980s an AA in General Studies was revived, followed by the establishment of a four-year General Studies degree in 1987.

In spite of the major’s long history at the school, relatively few of Armstrong’s 7,000 students major in General Studies. Nordquist notes that about 60-80 students each year earn General Studies degrees. This first year, the MALPS program has 28 students.

So what exactly is a Liberal Arts degree? On AASU’s Liberal Studies website, Nordquist describes “the ideals of a liberal education. Such ideals include the ability to think critically, to communicate effectively, to become aware of the vast extent and variety of our accumulated experience and knowledge, and to study at least one subject well enough to appreciate its subtlety and complexity.”

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary is more direct: “The studies (as language, philosophy, history, literature, abstract science) in a college or university intended to provide chiefly general knowledge and to develop general intellectual capacities as opposed to professional or vocational skills.”

Once upon a time, “the liberal arts” referred to a set of required courses “that every student was supposed to learn before attaining the status of a ‘free man,’” according to Dr. William Cronon of the University of Wisconsin-Madison in his essay “Only Connect... The Goals of a Liberal Education.”

Cronon goes on:

“In their original medieval incarnation, the liberal arts…were a concrete list of seven subjects: the trivium: grammar, logic, and rhetoric; and the quadrivium: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music….The ‘free men’ who studied the liberal arts were male aristocrats….Our modern sense of liberal education has expanded from this medieval foundation to include a greater range of human talents and a much more inclusive number of human beings….”

Why would anyone want a degree in “general knowledge”? Matchett’s answer is typical of students in general studies tracks.

“When I graduated from high school I had two loves, English and science, so I thought I’d major in pre-med. But that was going against the grain. I wasn’t as science-oriented as I thought. I took a break and decided to try my second love, English. I enjoyed it thoroughly. The first time I went to school for my parents, but this time I went for me.”

Although most Liberal Arts students are passionate advocates of their chosen majors, the pursuit of the classics remains consistently less popular than more career-oriented degree programs.

SSU’s English major has averaged only 45 students per year in the last three years, which is less than two percent of the total university enrollment. By comparison, SSU’s business management majors represent 11 percent of the student body.

Liberal arts students talk a lot about love as their motivation — love of writing, love of creativity.

Not coincidentally, many liberal arts students are a few years older than the wave of teenaged freshmen arriving on campus each fall.

Nordquist says that it’s not unusual for students in the liberal arts to begin their studies later in their lives, often due to career interruptions in their education, or after an examination of their lives and hearts to discern where their passions lie.

Melissa Wilson, now living in Gaithersburg, Maryland, is a Hardeeville native who fits that description to a T. When she graduated from high school Wilson attended Norfolk State in Virginia on a partial scholarship.

“I spent about a year there. Originally I majored in Medical Technology,” she says. “It was more of a family thing. My aunt thought it would be a good thing to have.”

But the medical track didn’t suit her, so after two semesters Wilson enlisted in the Air Force, where she served for five years as a computer technician. After completing her tour of duty Wilson returned to Savannah, and in Fall 2000 she enrolled at AASU.

“Originally, I wanted to major in Psychology,” says Wilson, “but unless I planned to go directly into a masters program I wouldn’t be able to use it the way I wanted to. General Studies offered me a better alternative. The program offers more varied courses. I could pretty much go into any field that I wanted to that is not specialized. Armstrong’s Psychology program is more clinically and research based than what I was looking for. I wanted more on the organizational development and human resources aspects. I didn’t want to go into the clinical track.”

If she had it to do again, “I would have gone into General Studies from the very beginning,” she says. “I just think that the experiences and the courses I was allowed to take were very enlightening. I really enjoyed astronomy, meteorology, ethics and philosophy, those were my four favorites. At first you look at meteorology and think ‘Why would I want to take that?’ But it puts a little bit more excitement in it, it’s not just drab lecture class. It gives you a different perspective.”

Wilson also typifies one of three basic groups of students Nordquist describes as drawn to the General Studies degree. About one third of General Studies students begin in a particular field and find that the course they’ve chosen isn’t going to provide them with the type of education they want, such as Wilson’s realization that the clinical aspects of psychology did not suit her.

Another third, according to Nordquist, enter the program “because of uncertainty. It’s almost a default degree for them. It takes some of us many years to find out what we want to do.”

The last third Nordquist describes as students who “genuinely have cross disciplinary interests.” Often these students “put together multiple minors — humanities groupings such as art and literature.”

Nordquist notes that there is a national trend toward “encouraging students to combine their Liberal Arts interests with a professional track.”

Examples include combining art with computer science, or communications with economics — both of which Nordquist described as both a liberal arts pursuit and a career-oriented interest.

One goal of combining concentrations is to present the student with “a mixture of tradition and values with skills that an employer might be looking for,” says Nordquist.

This combination can also help allay the family pressures mentioned by Wilson and Matchett. In particular, a General Studies degree with a computer concentration can supply “enough technology to make Daddy happy and enough that a student can follow her heart,” says Nordquist.

Matchett feels that English is right for her because “I love reading and talking about it!” She also loves writing, and has established her career as an instructor with SSU’s writing lab, The Rewrite Connection.

Matchett is working on her writing portfolio for graduate schools; she intends to pursue a masters’ degree in writing and rhetoric. She’s also dipped her toe into a writing career — she had an essay published in Skirt magazine in May.

As for her parents’ concerns for her future, Matchett says, “My mother is really proud of me, she jokes that all she ever wanted was a doctor and a lawyer. My other two sisters, one is a journalism major and works as an editorial assistant, the other is a healthcare administrator. We tell her that she’s the one who taught us to read at age three or four, so why wouldn’t we love reading and writing?”

These days most Liberal Arts programs incorporate strategies into their curricula to prepare their graduates for the career world.

“Even those of us who are arch defenders of the liberal arts tradition realize there is a danger in getting too precious about this,” says Nordquist.

“We can’t just say ‘Don’t worry about the future, you’ll be prepared for anything.’ Yes that’s true but we need to do more to show students how to apply what they’ve learned in the professional world. Our message is ‘You’ve got to work harder to show employers that you have the skills they want.’ “

Wilson now works in Maryland as a Human Resources Generalist. She has found her Liberal Arts education relevant in her day to day work life.

“Especially the ethics class -- a lot of it is thinking. It gives you a way of thinking outside the box,” Wilson says.

“I learned new ways of looking at situations, how to deal with situations based on various outcomes. It helps because in this workforce I have to have that kind of open mindedness to deal with all kinds of individuals, and not just think my way is the only way.”

AASU’s new MALPS degree reflects that desire to integrate a liberal education with the professional world. Unlike Armstrong’s undergraduate General Studies degrees, in which each student can identify his own area of concentration with approval from a faculty advisor, the MALPS program offers three tracks: Leadership Studies, International Studies, and Gender & Women’s Studies.

Of the three specialty areas, the Leadership and International tracks seem to lean toward professional development versus purer academic pursuits. Nordquist foresees that additional tracks will be developed in future years that will appeal to students desiring a more classical post-graduate experience.

Right now his concern is making sure that enough courses are offered in each track during evening hours, when most of the MALPS students need to take classes due to their daytime work schedules.

AT SCAD, the BFA and MFA degrees in Painting and Art History adhere most closely to the Liberal Arts tradition.

Like the Liberal Arts majors at the other local schools, SCAD’s Painting Department draws a relatively small number of students, with 216 undergraduate majors and 55 graduate students enrolled this fall out of the 6,700 student population, according to Becky Greenspan, SCAD spokesperson.

Craig Drennen, a professor in SCAD’s Painting Department, sees his mission as training his Painting major students for the job of professional artists.

“What I say on the first day of classes, especially to the upper level students, is ‘What I am there to do is prepare them to have an impact on the culture on the contemporary art world,’” Drennen says.

“Students who are not interested in that sometimes have to realign themselves. I look at every student as someone who is going to be on the cover of Art Forum in 15 years.”

To aid in this real-world training, SCAD offers a course called Professional Practices.

“In their last year and a half as a student I get them to make a professional portfolio of slides, images and now a digital portfolio, and I have them use it,” says Drennen.

“What that means is they apply to artist residencies,” among other professional pursuits, he says.

“We’ve had our students get these. While in their senior year they find out they have an art residency set up for four months after graduation.”

As with most liberal arts degrees, Drennen notes that “There’s not an industry per se waiting to accept Painting majors the way there is an industry for 3D animation or digital technology. That’s not a bad thing -- it’s a strength rather than a weakness,” he says.

“It allows us to train them on how to organize their lives on how to remain an artist after graduation. That’s something I start telling them on the first day of classes.”

For Michael Scoggins, an MFA candidate in Painting at SCAD, his advanced degree taught him how to develop the business skills he will need to advance his art career as well as challenging him artistically and technically.

After getting a Liberal Arts undergraduate degree in Studio Art and Political Science at Mary Washington College in Virginia, Scoggins worked in the “real world” for 2 1/2 years at various jobs while trying to develop his art career.

“I worked all kinds of odd jobs — at the Virginia Lottery, at a computer store, anything to pay the bills,” he says.

Even though he worked hard on his art career during that time, Scoggins says, “I was very naÏve in the business aspect of it, simple things like taking slides and putting a portfolio together” -- skills he acquired through SCAD’s MFA program.

He also attributes his growth in graduate school to “being around a large group of artists reading and discussing all the time. All the MFA painting student studios are in one building. The late night coffee session, really helped me to develop into who I am,” he says.

“What I wanted to do was to paint. I played around with law school for a while but decided against it. Art had always been my first love,” he says.

“I think I’m a fairly confident artist now. I pushed myself, pushed my ideas. I found my voice in what I was trying to say.”

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