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Opinion

February 16, 2013

Shribman: What is knowledge worth?

(Continued)

Seventy-one years ago tomorrow, my uncle, who later died in a PT boat in combat off Guadalcanal, wrote a letter to my father, then a high school senior. He wasn’t much for preaching, but in this letter he wrote from the heart:

“If you went to a trade school you’d have one thing you could do & know — & you’d miss the whole world of beauty,” Philip Alvan Shribman wrote from the U.S. Navy transport ship Crescent City somewhere in the Pacific. “In a liberal school you know ‘nothing’ — & are ‘fitted for nothing’ when you get out. Yet, you’ll have a fortune of a broad outlook — of appreciation for people and beauty that money won’t buy.

“You can always learn to be a mechanic or pill mixer etc., but it’s only when you’re of college age that you can learn that life has beauty & fineness. Afterwards, it’s all struggle, war: economic if not actual. Don’t give up the idea & ideals of a liberal school. They’re too precious, too rare, too important.”

In this letter, cherished by three generations of my family, my uncle argues that the liberal arts were what the Allies were fighting for in World War II.

I think he was right, and I think it is a tragedy that this American treasure is under assault from a president who himself was the beneficiary of those values and that outlook — and from the audacity of hope that led him as a young man to believe that the way to make a difference in his life and in others’ was to study Herodotus, Sophocles, Plato and Aristotle, thinkers almost impossible to monetize in today’s market.

College debts and rising tuitions are true crises. But if you wonder whether college is worth it — if you doubt lazy mornings reading Milton and difficult afternoons in the chemistry lab have any value — don’t look at the government’s jobs and salary figures. In Virginia, where those figures already are available, the College of William and Mary, which provides one of the most prized diplomas in America, ranks seventh in the state in salaries for recent graduates. I bet those liberal arts alumni of Thomas Jefferson’s university do very well in the long run, though.

Instead, take a look, if you must, at the return-on-investment rankings for alumni 30 years out. Eight of the top 10 colleges specialize in the liberal arts. It turns out that you can get a pretty good bang out of mastering the Peloponnesian War after all. It is, in fact, priceless.

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North Shore native and Pulitzer Prize winner David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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