A letter on higher education

In 2018, I volunteered to help with a mock interview day at Purdue University. As a rule, the students I interviewed were very impressive. I scribbled, “If you were interviewing for an actual position, I would have hired you on the spot!” on more than one score card. Having worked at a large corporation, many of these faux jobseekers upstaged seasoned professionals I had previously interviewed.

Yet I feel reason to pause and sit awhile with this question: Is learning to ace an interview really what higher education is—or should be—about?

As an undergrad, I was pretty terrible at interviews. But I didn’t need an etiquette class to teach me. I learned by going to interviews—as many as I could get scheduled in the economic downturn I graduated into.

I’m not trying single out business programs or classes. There are doubtless many things I could have learned sooner. And things that, as a surly, introverted writer, I could still learn.

The beauty of a liberal arts education is that it prepares you for anything, so long as you have the creativity and drive to make it happen. As a French major, I never thought I would one day find myself in a conference room pitching ideas to the CEO of a $5 billion company—or, on the flip side of that, crying after a tense meeting with a boisterous and domineering COO. But in fact, I can directly trace my journey back to my days as a French major at Calvin.

People always used to ask me, “What are you going to do with a French major?” Well, in graduate school at the University of Delaware, I would tell my 100-level students, “If you can get up in front of a classroom and speak in a foreign language for five minutes, what can’t you do?” From being a horribly shy student in high school and into college, learning French made me into a much more confident speaker in my own native English—a skill I’ve used to speak in front of boardrooms, classrooms, and conferences.

When I reflect on my time as an undergrad, two core classes come to mind immediately. First, I think of the political science class I took during my first semester with Dr. Simona Goi, where I read “Letters from a Birmingham Jail.” I remember sitting in the Fish House late at night, riveted by the urgency and moral clarity of Dr. King’s words.

I think of how my first sociology class allowed me to think of my place in the world as a cis white man in a way I had never before considered. This broke down barriers inside me. I learned to understand the ways in which privilege works for and against me.

These two classes were formative to my education—and my understanding of my role as an agent of renewal in the world, not just an employee or a professional looking to climb up another rung on the ladder.

Today, as Calvin weighs changes to its core curriculum, I hope that those at the table don’t lose sight of what makes Calvin such a special place—namely, the very idea of receiving training not for a career or a vocation, but for a lifetime of service to our neighbors, communities, and the world.

The world today is looking for people who are able to adapt and keep pace with change, while being deeply anchored in a sense of self and resolute values. A liberal arts education teaches you to do just that.

Never once have I looked back and felt anything was missing in my education background that could have been remedied by a degree in business, communications, or marketing. To those in such fields, please know I am not writing with you in mind; I am writing, instead, for those cowed by the constant drumbeat of people asking, “What are you going to do with that?” I am writing for those who want to explore their passions and feed their curiosity but are scared by the idea that everything they’re doing today must have some “practical” element to it for any hope of future success.

We must absolutely have broader discussions about how we can make an institution like Calvin more accessible, but in doing so I hope that we won’t lose sight of what makes a Calvin education so valuable.

Joel Meredith wrote an open letter to President Le Roy, Provost Brandsen, and the university core task force regarding pending changes to Calvin’s core curriculum. The letter can be viewed at change.org/world-languages.