Liberal Arts to the Rescue?

A new play suggests a surprising traditional route out of poverty, writes Sanford J. Ungar.

June 7, 2016

A stint at a liberal arts college as the cure for economic hardship and social despair? As a way out of poverty and dead-end, low-wage employment?

That's hardly the conventional wisdom. Just ask around, and it’s easy to find someone who will tell you how useless it is to indulge yourself in the humanities or to become immersed in a broad selection of old-fashioned courses in the traditional arts and sciences, rather than going for marketable, albeit elusive, "skills." After all, as former Republican presidential candidate Senator Marco Rubio said in a Milwaukee debate last fall, welders make more money than philosophers. (Not true, as it turns out.)

Yet a detour back to the liberal arts is the subversive suggestion tucked away in Sweat, a stinging postindustrial stage drama of economic injustice by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage, which has played to mostly rave reviews in Oregon and Washington, DC, and will open next fall in New York. At a critical moment in the action, the 21-year-old black factory worker Chris, looking for a way to improve his lot in life, tells his foil and white friend Jason, during a scene in the bar where they hang out, that he is thinking of enrolling at Albright College, a small, private, nonprofit liberal arts institution in Reading, the small city in southeastern Pennsylvania where the play is set. This is, to put it mildly, a counterintuitive turn in the plot.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival commissioned Nottage, a recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant, to write one of her searing social dramas about America’s “de-industrial revolution.” She located Sweat in Reading (pronounced “redding”) because it was ranked as the country’s poorest city in 2012.

That distinction came as a shock to me. Having grown up 80 miles to the north near Wilkes-Barre, a town that since the late 1950s has seemed to define the term “depressed,” I always thought of Reading as a bit on the spiffy side. They made pretzels and steel there (a lot more exotic than Wilkes-Barre’s coal mines and shoe factories) and boasted one of the country's first outlet malls. The Cleveland Indians at one point actually moved a minor league baseball franchise from Wilkes-Barre to Reading, which seemed to be quite a statement. Besides, Reading was much closer to sophisticated Philadelphia, and its eponymous little railroad had a glamorous presence on the Monopoly board.

Indeed, as Nottage noted to me in a recent telephone conversation, there was a time, not so very long ago, when Reading and other old-line communities like it “had such an abundance of industrial jobs available that a person could practically stand on a street corner and get hired.”

In those days, she added, “a really good, solid factory job was a way to move up the ladder and get into the middle class. You could have a paid vacation every year, health insurance and a pension.” After 25 or 30 years, a worker in Reading could hope to earn $40,000 a year, support a family and have a good life.

But the evolution of the American economy has ravaged such places. New realities have wiped out old appearances and reputations. By the time Nottage, who is African-American, arrived in Reading to do research, she found severe economic deprivation and a host of social ills -- crime and violence, drugs, and a bitter racism that sets desperate people against each other and especially against immigrants.

Sweat takes place in 2000, when a plant in Reading begins to lay off its workers, presumably because the jobs are being moved to Mexico and elsewhere outside the U.S., and in 2008, by which time the dire consequences of economic decline can be more fully appreciated. The talk is tough, fear of the inevitable pathological and a secure future hard to imagine. Sweat is, in a sense, a morality play, in which an explanation lurks for the rise of both of this year’s most surprising political figures, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, each with his distinct appeal to the dispossessed.

The protagonists, who include two mother-son pairs, one black and one white, have clearly placed far too much faith and confidence in their paternalistic employer. When things begin to unravel, they have no good place to turn. The bartender, their psychological and social adviser, permanently crippled as he is from his own accident at the plant, where he, too, used to work, could have told them this was coming -- but no one was listening.

So how is it that one of the victims, even before everything begins to fall apart at the plant, looks to a liberal arts college for salvation?

Chris, says Nottage, his creator, “is a kid who was always aspirational. But it was drilled into his head as he was growing up that he could make much more money in the factory” than he ever would with a college degree. Clearly, when he got out of high school, “a skilled-labor person was in greater demand than someone with a B.A.”

What Chris has realized by the time he makes his seemingly random remark about going to study at Albright, Nottage says, is “how taxing, physically and emotionally, his factory job was. It took him a long time to come around to a new idea” -- that he could go to college after all and perhaps train to be a teacher -- “and he met great resistance in his peer group and his family.”

For his part, Lex O. McMillan III, now completing his 11th year as president of Albright College, finds this anomalous twist in the plot of Sweat totally logical. As he notes, Albright, once a more elite institution, has become a very diverse place. Today a majority of its students are members of minority groups, and about half of the student body is eligible for federal Pell Grants that go to the economically disadvantaged. Surprisingly enough, the average family income of students at Albright and other similarly situated private colleges in the region is lower than of those at Penn State, the flagship state institution in Pennsylvania and one of the largest public universities in the United States.

But as the action unfolds in Sweat, Chris never makes it to Albright. His job disappears before he can come up with a plan, and in a cruel twist, his own mother, cynically drawn from the factory floor into management with a mandate to help downsize the workforce, seems to be partially responsible.

Nottage defends her somewhat surprising choice of Albright, rather than the more predictable option of a community college, as the place her fictional hero thinks of attending. “In Chris’s community,” she says, “it would not necessarily be identified as a ‘liberal arts college,’ but it might be seen as a place where someone with his background and experience could aspire to succeed.” She was particularly drawn to Albright’s website, which, among other things, features a college-completion program geared for adults returning to school.

Then there is the fact that she herself is the product of a liberal arts curriculum at Brown University, “which allowed me to have as broad an education as I could imagine.” Originally pegged as a math and science scholar, Nottage entered Brown from New York as a pre-med student, but found that “no part of me had any interest in being a doctor” -- so she escaped to the humanities.

McMillan has not yet seen Sweat performed, but he and his colleagues have greatly enjoyed the unexpected attention it has focused on Albright.

Has the case been made widely and convincingly enough that a traditional college education has a role to play in solving America’s plight? “The B.A. is a path to economic advancement,” McMillan says, mounting his newly polished soapbox. “It is the most practical education you can get, and it will be useful all your life.”

Nottage agrees. “Some students,” she acknowledges, “cannot be served fully by a liberal arts institution.” But a liberal education, she believes, “makes a whole vocabulary available to another group of people.”


Sanford J. Ungar, president emeritus of Goucher College, is a Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Georgetown University and a Lumina Foundation Fellow. He teaches Free Speech at Harvard University and Georgetown.


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