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Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Value of a Liberal Arts Education

While noodling around the blogosphere, I discovered two blogs by the most elegant women. And they are in my age bracket. And they are both Francophiles. And they are incredibly good writers. I will post at another time about how I strayed from my usual reading on frugality and happened upon these blogs. Meanwhile, I have affirmed the value of my liberal arts education.

I was reading a post by elegant blogger #1 (une femme d’un certain age; see my previous post inspired by her vintage mink purchase). She had put together a great outfit, topped by her specialty, a scarf. One of the comments asked if she had seen the Hermes pattern “Neige D’Antan.”

Well! This brought me right back to college. After checking out the Hermes pattern, I dreamed for a while about the poem by Francois Villon, which I read for the first time in the class of my beloved teacher M. Danon. Even though it’s in medieval French, it’s pretty easy to translate. There are zillions of translations on the internet, but, if you have any French, give it a try. The famous refrain means "Where are the snows of yesteryear?"

Ballade (des dames de temps jadis)

Dictes moy ou, n'en quel pays,
Est Flora la belle Rommaine,
Archipiades ne Thaïs,
Qui fut sa cousine germaine,
Echo parlant quant bruyt on maine
Dessus riviere ou sus estan,
Qui beaulté ot trop plus q'humaine.
Mais ou sont les neiges d'antan?

Ou est la tres sage Helloïs,
Pour qui chastré fut et puis moyne
Pierre Esbaillart a Saint Denis?
Pour son amour ot ceste essoyne.
Semblablement, ou est la royne
Qui commanda que Buridan
Fust geté en ung sac en Saine?
Mais ou sont les neiges d'antan?

La royne Blanche comme lis
Qui chantoit a voix de seraine,
Berte au grand pié, Beatris, Alis,
Haremburgis qui tint le Maine,
Et Jehanne la bonne Lorraine
Qu'Englois brulerent a Rouan;
Ou sont ilz, ou, Vierge souvraine?
Mais ou sont les neiges d'antan?

Prince, n'enquerez de sepmaine
Ou elles sont, ne de cest an,
Qu'a ce reffrain ne vous remaine:
Mais ou sont les neiges d'antan?

Such happy memories! I had four years of high school French and my teachers must have been good, because I placed directly into upper-level literature courses in college. I sat in my first one in total and terrified silence. Nearly every other student was fluent in French, because Dad was in the foreign service, or Granny had paid for summer camp in Switzerland, or something like that. The middle-class student at a private college is often subject to such insecurities. I could do the reading, but I could barely string together a short sentence—and not about literature. M. Danon was intimidating, but, it turned out, incredibly kind. When I went to his office for a required conference, he looked over my paper (written in French!) and said “You are a smart cookie.” I was so thrilled and that was my mantra through many more insecure years in college: at least M. Danon thinks I’m a smart cookie.

On the way home from work, I said to Mr. Dr. Frugal Scholar, “Did you know there was a scarf pattern called “Neige D’Antan?” And he said, “Ou sont les neiges d’antan.” Who needs fancy gifts when you can have a conversation like that?

As a footnote, I was reading a New York Times piece on Obama’s prose style. The author, Stanley Fish, is most famous in academic circles for his book on Milton’s Paradise Lost, but my favorite of his works is called Self-Consuming Artifacts: The Experience of Seventeenth-Century Prose. Although this stuff is challenging, I am lucky enough to love the prose of Francis Bacon, Thomas Browne, and Robert Burton. Reading the Opinion piece was the occasion of another trip down memory lane, as I read Fish’s fascinating analysis of Obama’s style. Here’s one of Fish’s sentences, with a literary allusion tucked in:

“And if you look at the text – spread out like a patient etherized on a table – that’s exactly what it’s like.”

Fish made a little mistake (it should be upon, not on), but here was another bit of pleasure for me as I recognized a bit of another famous poem.

I have always thought that one reason that frugality came naturally to me was that all the things I most enjoy are cheap or free: reading, taking walks, chatting, cooking, listening to music. With the addition of gardening and bicycling, these are Mr. Dr. Frugal Scholar’s favorite things too.

OK, we like to travel, but we have managed to do that in fairly frugal ways.

So maybe the value of a liberal arts education is not that it prepares you to make pots of money, but that it sets you up for a life of pleasure—much of which is free.


Anonymous said...

Oui! I have been thinking that this recession/depression will throw people back on their own resources and that all sorts of "creativity"--in all sorts of endeavors--will surface again.

Funny about Money said...

Mon dieu! I haven't read that poem in years! It was one of my favorites. Believe it or not, I have a bachelor's degree in French and was on track for a Ph.D. when the train was derailed by marriage. Had to switch to English, because the university where we lived had no decent graduate program in French.

IMHO the value of a liberal education is that it furnishes your mind and trains you to think clearly. That's what makes you Presidential material. Assuming it takes...

Frugal Scholar said...

@Terri--A good point! But I still wish my retirement fund was back the way it was.

@Funny--Glad to give you a trip down memory lane too! "Assuming it takes" is right. Many of my students don't do the reading at all; they read on-line summaries and memorize things. Then I get 50 almost verbatim answers on a test. I'm not too worried about the students at liberal arts schools; I'm worried about the average students.

Did you see the New York Times essay on Obama's reading? I thought you might be referring to it...

To you both: merci beaucoup!

Deja Pseu said...

In my dotage, I'm sorry that I didn't pursue a liberal arts degree. What pleasure it must give you to be able to discuss literature and French poetry!

Duchesse said...

Neige d'Antan is a design of art deco- era skiers, holly berries and snowflakes. It's one of the most-loved in my 22 year collection.
I'll save for one of these timeless treasures.

Frugal Scholar said...

@Deja--Truly, education is wasted on many students! You can get a fabulous education on-line now. Check out the site for materials on 16th and 17th century literature--my favorite.

@Duchesse--I think it's neat that the people who named the Hermes scarf were quoting a poem by Villon. I have some earlier posts on my experience with Hermes--for some reason, I've found 5 Hermes ties, and no Hermes scarves. I wonder if anyone would swap 2 ties for one scarf???

Thanks for the comments

Someone said...

Compliments on your blog, FS.

I also went into academia (have an MA and most of a PhD, read French, German, Swedish, some Italian, bits of others...) before realizing that I needed to do something the world appreciated more in order to survive...I won't go into my personal tribulations here -- my point in posting is that I too have mused on the value of my liberal arts education and what I came up with years ago is that it allows you to "get the references" - exactly like you have done.

Of course, as we know, "the context is decisive" - and in this as in many things, culture has become so fragmented that if we want to appear educated outside of traditional venues, we have to learn many more sets of references than we used to.

And, on another note, I confess that a contributor to my decision not to continue in ivied halls was precisely the easy cheats of which students increasingly could avail themselves. I wasn't interested in fighting that AND its underlying philistine attitude.