“Ruined for Life”: Conscience and Convenience in a Liberal Arts Education

The year following my graduation from a small, liberal arts college in New England in 1995, I served as a full time volunteer with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC) in Kansas City Missouri (making $300/month to be pooled and spent collectively with/by the five other women with whom I shared a home and a life). I worked as an advocate and psycho-social therapist at a safe home for women and children who had fled domestic violence and I lived in one of the nation’s poorest neighborhoods where crime was high, unemployment was high, and love and community support flowed freely. JVC is best described as a domestic “Peace Corps type” program that places volunteers throughout the US and asks them not only to work toward social justice, but to live a life where simplicity, community and explorations of spirituality are woven into this work. The motto of this program is “Ruined for Life.” Far from being a depressing banner, this phrase profoundly undergirds the goals and activities of each volunteer’s time with the organization. This is not a “gap year”; this is not an “internship”; this is not a chance to pad a resume. The goal is to encourage and support volunteers through experiences (good and bad) that forever reshape the way they see the world at large, social issues therein and their own place in both. In this way we all hoped to be “ruined” for life.

But my ability to become “ruined” was a direct result not only of my upbringing (which was shaped by parents who pursued social justice work) but of my studies and work in college—in a liberal arts environment that in my mind was anything but geared toward job placement. What had been instilled at home was expanded and underscored and even challenged for four years of my young adult life. My professors, the courses I took, and the range of viewpoints, backgrounds and ideas of my fellow students collectively unsettled me, knocked me off balance, pushed me far beyond my comfort zone and beyond some of the easy answers I had meted out in my teens. These years exposed me to theories, case studies, people and places that could not be easily categorized or ignored. A liberal arts education made me think about what I knew, what I thought I knew and what I thought about what I thought I knew. It was not good enough to find one answer and accept it, it was necessary to take contradictory evidence and deal with it as I tried to craft a life of the mind and a life of action. What I’ve come to realize is that this was better than “job” training. This was “life” training.

Some examples: (these tend to focus on the humanities – there were social science and physical science examples as well)

1) In a first year philosophy course Sigmund Freud, Lawrence Kohlberg and Carol Gilligan were read back to back to back. Partly because my father had been a Freudian analyst and partly because I had taken psychology in high school, I already knew something about both Freud and Kohlberg and was willing to give them a wider berth than some of my fellow classmates. But when put in conversation with Gilligan and her unique and different ideas about the gendered nature of what passes as “baseline” morality and maturity, I was transfixed…and transformed. What did I define as “normal”? What did I experience as “normal”? Whose voices were given preference? My comfortable sense of “I know this already” was over.

2) In a wonderfully interdisciplinary course on HIV/AIDS and its intersection with subjects and scholarship far and wide I first encountered the idea that the AIDS pandemic might be seen as a modern incarnation of the plague of the Middle Ages. And in setting up this historical, philosophical and literary pairing, the depth of my thinking about the social, political and moral dynamics of the AIDS conversation grew exponentially. I had been an activist before taking the class, but I had been someone who saw the issue largely as a medical concern tinged with homophobic overtones. After this class, which highlighted the role of art and artists to respond to the AIDS crisis, I was not only an activist but a reflective thinker who was more powerfully positioned to grapple with and discuss the immense web of connected “truths” and “values” that implicated me along with “them” (as I had deemed those who fueled hatred and inaction) in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

3) Finally, in my senior year in a history class called “The Globalization of American Culture” I had a profound “ruining” experience. I had plans to join the Peace Corps post-graduation; this was something I had been thinking about for years. Because of this and at the suggestion of my professor (she knew something I didn’t!) I chose for my seminar paper an exploration of the Cold War and the impact and agenda of the Peace Corps in its early years as young people like me set out around the world. Whether due to naïveté or stupidity or something else, I found myself SHOCKED when I began reading of the anti-Communist tinge to the training and missions of those early years. Here I was a well-educated young person on the verge of graduating from a great school and I had never made this connection. I was devastated and profoundly changed. It was not so much that I thought ill of the Peace Corps as a whole (I understood the historical context of my subject) but rather that I had to completely rethink and revise my sense of what divided “good/pure” humanitarian service from “politically-charged” efforts of the same, and as I grappled with this, I realized that I needed to step back from the Peace Corps for awhile; I needed to reset my thoughts about service and “helping others.” I decided to join JVC instead.

My liberal arts education was not one of convenience–most of the memorable events of those years were profoundly awkward or uncomfortable intellectual and moral moments. I was constantly forced to engage myself—intellectually, morally, socially, politically—and grapple with BIG questions of justice, duty, identity, and my role in civil society.

But some will ask: What was I prepared to DO when I graduated? What job-training did I have? What could I put on a resume? I often wondered this myself and I certainly did not think that I had a resume full of experience to show for my time as an undergraduate. But I suspected then (possibly as a means of self-preservation), and I know even better now, that the “adult world” or the “working world” require exactly what I had gained in my less-than-convenient education. Certainly I knew how to think, I knew how to analyze, I knew how to conduct research and I knew how to develop arguments…but most importantly for me and most importantly for the point I wish to make here is the fact that I knew how to let go of my worldview and allow myself to be challenged. I knew that I could handle this sort of de-centering and de-stabilization and I knew that the truly important challenges facing my society and my world (hunger, poverty, war, peace, the environment, justice) could be addressed only by people who could risk being “ruined.”

As a college professor at an institution with many first-generation college students I have weekly conversations with students about letting go a little bit of the notion that a college education is about job training. Especially in this day and age when technology shifts and economic uncertainly make even the best laid plans a bit uncertain, I want my students to see the gift of their education as a gift of exploration and moral/intellectual growth. I teach in the Arts and Sciences section of my college and consistently argue that liberal arts educations are valuable because the de-stabilize so much. A liberal arts education can and should CHANGE students…in fact that should be the goal. As the UC-Berkeley website says eloquently yet bluntly: To be liberally educated is to be transformed.”

On a note closer to home, this sort of transformation is at the heart of the Clemente Course that Mass Humanities sponsors. This course which “provides tuition-free, college-level instruction, for college credit, to economically and educationally disadvantaged individuals aged 17 and older” has a critically important social and political role: it helps “provide people with crucial tools for gaining control over their lives and becoming engaged in their communities”. But how do the humanities—the foundations of a liberal arts education—serve such a “practical” purpose? Easily. In the words of Earl Shorris, who imagined and developed the course: "The humanities provide the most practical education. The humanities teach us to think reflectively, to begin, to deal with the new as it occurs to us, to dare.”

“To dare.” This is essential in order to be “ruined for life.” A liberal arts education prepared me to be open to taking on my work with JVC and my work with JVC has led me to a way of living and teaching that aims to ruin many more students. I tell my students as much at the beginning of each semester–by the end I am thrilled if I see ruins everywhere.

Author: Elizabeth Duclos-Orsello

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