The NonTraditional Life: The liberal arts and the non-trad

Al Fairchild, Staff Reporter

I was sitting at the Daily Grind with a friend recently, and she began to give me a hard time about my classic Mickey Mouse watch. I replied that returning to school was making me young again. “But now I can’t make it stop,” I sobbed, “and this is the result!”

My friend immediately regretted having caused me psychological pain, worrying that she might have emotionally scarred an old man for life. Well, all I know is that she never mentions the watch any more, she’s the one who wound up emotionally scarred, and I got a free cup of coffee out of the deal. Heh-heh.

It’s true, though. Mental exercise helps calcified brains to become pliable, and that takes the years off. I’m proof. But there’s more to it than just exercising the mind.

Returning to school as a non-traditional student after years of “same-old, same-old”—the same old work, the same old obligations, the same old people, and the same old routine—has invigorated me. I had, for a couple of decades, been sitting in a cubicle waiting to retire, and then going home each night waiting to die.

Melodramatic? Not really.

Our quality of life is dictated by the education we’ve received. If our education has been geared towards “doing one thing and doing it well,”—that is, vocational training—that particular task and whatever security it provides defines us, sometimes bogging us down in a morass of repetition where we do one thing over and over until we finally retire. Then we stop doing it. If we are unwilling to start anew—which can be difficult late in life—then our lives are over. We wait to die.

That doesn’t mean that “tasks” always lead to tedium or that pursuing excellence necessarily terminates at a dead end. There are many examples of vocations that thrive on growth, diversity, and invention. Teaching and journalism come to mind. It’s not surprising that many management positions in business require a four-year degree. Those positions call for empathy and innovation, things that are more easily learned in a liberal arts setting than in a vocational one.

It’s ironic that in today’s society, those very qualities are being scoffed at as pompous, and the resulting professionals are increasingly being labeled with monikers like “snobs,” “east coast elitists,” and “lamestream media.” I suspect, though, that such attacks are aimed more at eliciting kneejerk support from folks who refuse to exert any effort to fit in with society than at any real issues. But I digress.

Those who include the liberal arts in their master plans are more able to cope with the intricacies of society and to deal with unforeseen change. Those like me, who have already failed to anticipate the need for such things in favor of getting a job and a bringing home a paycheck, oftentimes find ourselves the most in need of a change.

Going back late in life and starting over the right way can be difficult. In fact, foregoing the steady income one has become accustomed to, then paying tuition and buying textbooks, while continuing to maintain a house and pay off its mortgage, can be downright daunting—impossible for some. But it’s well worth it. I recommend making the effort.

Struggling for a few years can pay off in a number of ways. Just being around Lakeland’s potpourri of students from different cultures, its many nationalities and languages, and the diversity of its faculty, its staff, and its programs will make an old codger like me young again. I know it will. Mickey told me so.

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