A “Divergent” — aka, the Liberal Arts Student

By Kathleen Strycula

In Veronica Roth’s young adult novel Divergent, people live under a regime made up of five distinct factions: Abnegation, Amity, Dauntless, Candor, and Erudite. Each one is dedicated to a specific skill, service, and way of life – public service works, agricultural specialists, soldiers, leaders in the law, and scholars. On an appointed ceremonial day, the youth on the verge of adulthood are faced with the crucial one-time task of choosing the direction of the rest of their lives, placing themselves according to their strengths, passion, and skills within one of the factions. However, the protagonist of the story, Tris, is discovered to be a “divergent,” which means she possesses skills from across the five different factions. Her abilities allow her to see the world in unique ways, creatively solve problems posed by difficult situations, and lead those around her in efforts to make a better world.

In education today, college-age students are similarly faced with the decisive choice of a major – will they study math, science, business, politics, or maybe nursing? The options are plentiful, but the decision has very specific and significant consequences. It is something that will influence what they know, how they spend their time, whom they meet, and what career they will pursue. However, the interdisciplinary learning offered through a liberal arts education opens up possibilities that span across different occupational fields. It grounds the person in character, virtue, and a well-rounded perspective on the world around them. 

In The Key Reporter article “Standing the Test of Time: The Idea of a Liberal Arts Education,” Lindsay Liles writes that “[Cardinal] Newman justifies the need for a range of disciplines to be offered to the students of a university. He believed that the many subjects ‘have multiplied bearings one on another, and…complete, correct, [and] balance each other’.” Avenues of thought learned from one field, when brought to a different discipline, could prove incredibly innovative. Divergent thinking is a researched psychological concept; Robert R. McCrae and Mark Runco both study divergent thinking, and their research indicates that it is positively associated with creativity, fluid intelligence, openness to experience, concept generation, and ideation analysis. Multipotentialite is a term used with growing frequency these days; it is a person whose areas of interest span more than one discipline. Overlapping disciplines and cross-fertilization of ideas foster, in a unique way, divergent thinking and invaluable skills such as leadership, open-mindedness, and creative thinking.

So, how does the “divergence” encouraged by the liberal arts have a practical applicaiton in today’s business world? Employers are hiring more and more based upon a person’s adaptability, leadership, communication skills, and creative thinking, students with a liberal arts education stand well equipped. Also, as employee tenure continues to shorten, the length of a single job no longer lasts for twenty years or a full career as it once did. Employee Tenure by the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that while the average job lasts ten years for those employees aged fifty to sixty, the generation of employees aged twenty-five to thirty-four stay in each job for only an average of three years. In the face of this paradigm shift, liberal arts students benefit by having acquired skills that are applicable across the board, making them more adaptable in an environment where change is the norm.

“We’ve all started to put down the virtues of the other factions in the process of bolstering our own. I don’t want to do that. I want to be brave, and selfless, and smart, and kind, and honest,” writes Roth in Divergent. Her novel is a wonderful defense of and analogy for liberal arts education. For those in the liberal arts, these ideas are nothing new. The same concepts of open-mindedness, leadership, and divergent thinking found in Divergent and embodied in the liberal arts are echoed in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The American Scholar” address to the Harvard Phi Beta Kappa Society in 1837: “In yourself slumbers the whole of Reason; it is for you to know all, it is for you to dare all.”

Kathleen Strycula is a senior at the Catholic University of America majoring in psychology and minoring in studio art. The Catholic University is home to the Beta of the District of Columbia Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.