The Liberal Arts Debate: Looking the Wrong Way?

By Erik Brydges

Principal James Pribble turned to me as we stood under the canopy in the playground which was sheltering us and all of the school children at Gulfport Elementary from an unusually long and hard downpour of Florida rain. We had been evacuated in the middle of our interview because of a possible gas leak, and, as we waited for the “all clear” from the fire department, the interview continued. 

“You could really make a difference to these kid’s lives,” Principal Pribble stated. And he was not just talking about me, but about all of the students at Eckerd College who had recently joined a new club on campus, the Eckerd College Education Alliance (ECEA). 

The ECEA is a student run and organized club comprised of volunteers who not only want to give back to their local community by tutoring and mentoring students in local Pinellas County schools, but who also want to take a critical look at the education system in the United States and start a dialogue about it. 

The ECEA’s founder, junior Ross Busch, believes that a liberal arts institution, like Eckerd College, is the perfect place to start a club like the ECEA. “Eckerd College has human capital,” Ross explained. “We have students who are incredibly talented in everything from the marine sciences to philosophy. I look at it as a process of diffusion: We have everything and Pinellas County has almost nothing compared to everything we have.”

Ross is not exaggerating. As I spent more time with the ECEA, attending their meetings, receiving training from Pinellas County Schools to begin tutoring kids in their school system, and volunteering at Gulfport Elementary, the reality of the situation seemed to be that a lot of school children in the county come from fairly difficult backgrounds and are precariously close to falling through the cracks. 

“Some of our students come from some rough spots and rough home lives,” James Pribble commented. “They really don’t know what opportunities are out there, because they don’t have anybody to show them what those opportunities are.” 

And this cannot be a good combination of situations for a young student to be in, especially as they progress on to high school. A 2012 study entitled The Urgency of Now: The Schott Foundation 50 State Report on Black Males and Public Education, looked at what percentage of Black and Latino males graduated high school in four years. The study calculated that the national average for Black males was 52 percent. In Florida, the percentage of Black males graduating on time was 47 percent, and, in Pinellas County, it was only 34 percent. 

So, how can students from a liberal arts college help? Principle Pribble believes that liberal arts students have something extra to offer than just simple tutoring and mentoring: “When you come into a school, the academics are very important. But when you see our students here, it’s not the academics that have made the changes here, it’s the people, and caring about people. And, when I think about liberal arts degrees, that piece of caring about people and trying to give back to society and doing for society is huge.” 

And it was under that canopy, sheltering from the rain with all of the teachers, staff, and school children of Gulfport Elementary, where I realized that one side of the ongoing debate over the value of a liberal arts education might not only be focusing on the wrong definition of value, but also looking in the wrong direction. 

The value of a liberal arts education revolves around learning for the love of learning, not preparing students for a certain job or a career, and that love of learning is a passion that can be shared. The liberal arts students who are a part of the ECEA want to share that passion with local schools, but understand that without a good base to work from, without a good grasp of the fundamentals, students might not get to a place in their educational journey where they can actively engage in the debate and choose which path to take when it comes to higher education. Perhaps we need to shift the debate’s directional outlook and focus more on who will be coming into the debate rather than who is leaving it.

Erik Brydges is a senior at Eckerd College, double majoring in International Relations and Global Affairs and Political Science. Eckerd College is home to the Zeta of Florida Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.