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Liberal Arts and the Chapeau Bras

Finding myself in London with nothing in particular to do on a Sunday morning last June, I visited the exhibitions of royal finery at Kensington Palace. There, in addition to an extensive collection of Queen Elizabeth II’s hats (spanning more than six decades!) and Princess Diana’s gowns, I encountered an extraordinarily informative exhibit of official court dress. Now, for those of you as ignorant as I was of just what “court dress” includes, let me explain that, until fairly recently, if you were anybody of any consequence in England you could expect to be presented at Court, an occasion requiring you to dress in a very specific way. If you were a man, this included knee britches, at least two pairs of stockings (cotton underneath, silk on top), and a most remarkable hat called the “chapeau bras.” What made the chapeau bras remarkable is that it could not be worn on the head, or anywhere else for that matter. In fact, the chapeau bras was a purely decorative accoutrement whose sole function was to be carried under the arm at Court functions. Its purpose seemed to be to communicate the message that “of course I am wealthy enough to afford a handsome piece of headgear like this, but well bred enough never to wear it in the presence of the monarch.”

Over the years, I have encountered more than my share of people who would find the chapeau bras a perfect metaphor for liberal arts education: beautiful, ornate, evidence of good breeding perhaps, but totally impractical. You will not be surprised when I confess that I couldn’t disagree with these people more vehemently – at least regarding the charge of impracticality. Of course I may be oversensitive. My academic credentials are in the field of ancient history. I find it galling when people remark that something is “academic” as a synonym for irrelevant. I wince when they use the phrase “that’s ancient history” to convey more or less the same thought.

Although the Muhlenberg curriculum provides a much richer mix of what Benjamin Franklin once called “the useful and ornamental” than many of our peer institutions, scoffers could still find easy targets when thumbing through the Muhlenberg course catalog. “Homeric Poetry and History,” for example (a course I happen to be teaching this fall), would seem to have little practical application in the “real world.” A family paying substantial tuition might well ask one of my students “how is epic poetry going to help you earn a living?”

My reply to such critics, while perhaps not very original, is at least heartfelt. A liberal arts education provides its beneficiaries with a rich and varied intellectual tool kit. A student will master one set of analytical skills in chemistry or biology, quite different sets of skills in English literature, economics, philosophy, political science, and even in ancient history and the study of epic poetry. If there is one thing we can agree on about the future, it is likely to be its unpredictability. Not only do we not understand the answers the future will require of us, we probably do not yet even know the questions. What better preparation for such a future can we provide our children than the ability to research deeply, weigh conflicting evidence judiciously, synthesize knowledge fairly, think creatively, and articulate ideas with clarity and grace? Can we doubt that these are the very talents that will characterize the leaders and innovators of the coming decades?

Someone once said, “To the man who has only a hammer, every problem is a nail.” Of course, every problem is not a nail. Indeed, the man who has only a hammer is not even very likely to invent the nail gun. Yet Muhlenberg graduates are prepared to recognize and address problems in an extraordinary variety of fields. A career survey of recent graduates revealed that almost 98% are employed or in graduate or professional school. And I should add that they are employed as teachers, journalists, bankers, and in scores of other professions, at enterprises as varied as Merck, IBM, Merrill Lynch, Lockheed Martin, Skadden Arps, the Disney Channel, the Wall Street Journal and the U.S. Air Force. Muhlenberg grads typically enjoy an 85-90% success rate in applying to medical school, and a 90%+ success rate in applying to law school. Not one of them is a narrowly trained specialist, and not one of them, to the best of my knowledge, carries a chapeau bras.

Peyton R. Helm
President
Muhlenberg College

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