By Laura Morowitz
When I was in college, I took my first course in art history. My love for the subject hit me like a bolt of lightning and I knew I would eventually go on to graduate school and obtain my Ph.D. But right after college I needed some time to get my German up to speed and to make some money. I took a year off and was fortunate to get a job with a financial company that specialized in making loans to art dealers and collectors. My boss was a man named Gideon Strauss, a 75-year-old, bow-tie-wearing, cello-playing emigre, perhaps the most cultured and — certainly to a 22-year-old girl from Brooklyn — the most intimidating person I had ever met.
When the phone rang, he would answer the phone, “Strauss here,” and then proceed to converse with the speaker in English, German, French, Italian or Hebrew. When I met him, he had just determined to teach himself Russian. Born in Vienna, Gideon grew up in Berlin into a life of great culture and considerable wealth. He spent his adolescence in Swiss boarding schools and was certainly being fitted for a life of privilege.
But this destiny never came to pass.
Instead, he became a refugee in Hitler’s Europe, where his family lost all they had. In the late ’40s he became one of the first pioneers in the new state of Israel. He then made his way to the United States, becoming a banker and, in his 60s, a deeply knowledgeable expert on contemporary art.
One day I overheard a client asking Gideon where he had gone to school.
Gideon told him he had been educated in Swiss boarding schools.
“No,” the client said, “I mean university. Oxford?” he asked. “Or did you stay closer to Berlin?”
“I didn’t,” Gideon said, “I never had the chance to attend college.”
Not a man prone to self-pity, this was the first time I had heard the note of regret in his voice. His sadness at not having attended university was something he would repeat to me over the years. Despite the vast difference in our ages, and his impressive and enormous life experiences, I realized that in this arena, Gideon envied me.
The college that Gideon had longed to attend was not a trade school, a conservatory or an art school. No, the experience he yearned for was a liberal arts college.
The term “liberal arts college” is one you have surely heard — after all, you attended one! Perhaps the simplest way to describe one is to say that it is the only place where you can declare your major is “undeclared.” Students say it in a half whisper, almost as if it were a badge of shame — but they, too, wind up committed and happy.
“Many, many more people could never imagine the life of comfort, camaraderie and learning that we are so lucky to take part in.”
Some arrive at school with the joy of long courtship, having known since the age of seven that they wanted to be a nurse, or set on discovering the origins of language.
Some have been in a committed relationship with their chosen path, acting in every play since entering high school, or writing for every blog they could find. Those are wonderful.
But those who have arrived on campus undeclared may well fall in love, as I did, with a field they did not even know existed. They may suddenly realize that all they’ve ever really wanted to do is speak French, or learn as much as they could about ancient religions, or solve the most complex physics problems.
The beauty of the liberal arts colleges is that all students will have a chance to do these things, even if they’ve long settled on what they would like to do for a living. If they don’t study biology, they’ll study chemistry or physics. And if they don’t read a great play by Shakespeare, they’ll read a great novel by James Baldwin or Margaret Atwood or Salman Rushdie. So not knowing exactly what you want to focus on isn’t a drawback at a liberal arts college — it’s the very point of it.
Wagner is a liberal arts college, and I know you remember your experience here. You eventually chose a major and devoted a certain number of courses to its study. But you also got to take lots of courses just because they interested you. Taking those classes might not have made you more of an expert in your chosen occupation or guaranteed that you would earn more money. But they made you a more interesting person, someone who understands more parts of the world and how they interact with one another. They probably made you a more compassionate person by allowing you to step into the shoes of people with different experiences than yours, to contemplate the problems of a far wider share of humanity. They made you more innovative and creative, growing your ability to examine problems and issues from a multiplicity of perspectives. And, if your college experience was like mine, they made you a happier person for revealing to you the endless resilience, fortitude and diversity of human beings, as well as how often problems we thought were ours alone have been contemplated and considered over continents and often through centuries.
Each year at Wagner College, I get to teach a new group of students in their first-year learning community, a collection of three courses these thirty or so freshmen take together to kick off their experience of our signature curriculum, the Wagner Plan for the Practical Liberal Arts. You want to know what I tell them as they begin their college education — the deep, broad education that Gideon Strauss so longed for?
Practicality is important — but no less important is passion. This is your life; choose to do what you love. That is your greatest chance to be successful, if success means a life of meaning and joy.
Expand your horizons. That is the name of a study-abroad program here at a Wagner, but I mean it in a much broader sense. While at Wagner, make sure the world you construct for yourself — the people you befriend, the experiences you have, the books you read, the discussions in which you take part, the research you do, even the foods you try! — is different and pushes you out of your comfort zone.
Appreciate the incredible privilege of being where you are. Many people yearn for the days of being back in college, and the freedom and stimulation it entailed. Many, many more people could never imagine the life of comfort, camaraderie and learning that we are so lucky to take part in.
Gideon Strauss reminded me of how fortunate I was to have been shaped and equipped for life by a liberal arts education. I will never forget it.
Laura Morowitz, Ph.D., a professor of art history, has been a part of the Wagner College faculty since 1996. Her 2009 historical novel, “The Miracles of Prato,” was co-authored with Wagner English professor Laurie Lico Albanese. Her forthcoming book, “Erasures and Eradications in Modern Viennese Art, Architecture and Design,” was co-edited with Megan Brandow-Faller.