Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Value of a Liberal Arts Education

Samford University's Harwell G. Davis Library
(Photo by Charles Kinnaird)
I have spent some time recently reflecting upon the value of my own liberal arts education.  Not long ago I wrote as essay in response to an invitation from the editor of my alma mater's Seasons magazine to share some thoughts about the value of liberal arts study at Samford University. Some portions of the essay were quoted in "On the Value of Liberal Arts Education ‘Understanding How Our World Is Put Together’," by William Nunnelley in the Spring 2015 edition of Seasons.

I presented a version of that same essay on AMERICAblog last week, “Looking back on the benefits of a liberal arts education.” I was pleased with the responses I got from people who echoed the values I place on the liberal arts. My college experience was in an incredibly dynamic learning environment. In the essay I talked about the fact that I came from a small town and was a bit na├»ve when I entered college. I held to the provincial views I had grown up with, but was challenged toward a more progressive view of the world by the give and take of the discussions that took place about what we were reading. The remarkable thing was that these discussions did not end in the classroom. The conversation continued in hallways and dorm rooms. Some of my best memories are from discussions that took place around a certain table in the school cafeteria where I sat with some of my college friends. I heard things from professors whose courses I was not even taking, because friends were raising points that this professor of that professor had been taking about. I shared my own views, but also had some views challenged by listening to my peers present their views.
Reid Chapel
Samford University (CK) 

We were at a special time in our lives in which we could examine new ideas and concepts, and we were learning from each other as well as from our professors. It was a wonderful and challenging milieu that helped to turn me toward a more progressive view of life and a different outlook upon the world. As I mentioned in the AMERICAblog post, it was “an outlook that was at once more hopeful than the provincial views I had grown up with and more aware of our past and present social inequities.”

Gleaning the Benefits of "University"

Through the years, in the academic world, liberal arts studies have been in and out of fashion. Schools will focus on technical training, then some study or survey will show that employers really want employees with a liberal arts background because of their versatility, their ability to think on their feet, and their communication skills. School recruiters will then focus on liberal arts again until another career track comes along to lure more students. 

One aspect of "university" is that it is a multidisciplinary community of scholars. A liberal arts curriculum is an excellent way to gain the benefits of that multidisciplinary aspect if education. Last year, in an opinion piece in Forbes Magazine, "Why Getting a Liberal Arts College Education Is Not a Mistake," Jessica Kleiman takes issue with what Lazlo Block, the head of hiring for Google, had to say about the kind of training one should have in preparation for the job market. She states that her liberal arts curriculum, 

"fueled my curiosity, strengthened my critical thinking and writing skills and made me knowledgeable on a variety of subjects. And my internships at a magazine, a PR firm and a record company gave me the practical experience to pursue a career in writing and communications. I didn’t feel I made a “mistake” in choosing that path. In fact, I am now an executive vice president of communications at a media company–so I guess that degree came in handy."

Ms. Kleiman ends her column with some good advice: 

"Do what you love, study what interests you, get good internships, connect with as many people as possible who might help you land a job, be willing to work hard and be resourceful – and you’ll be fine, whether or not you know how to build an app or program a computer."

Questions continue to be raised, however, about the value of the liberal arts curriculum. Just last week America the National Catholic Review (a Jesuit Catholic weekly journal) presented an editorial by Brian Daley in response to the University of Notre Dame considering curriculum revisions that would drop philosophy and theology from its core requirement. Daley makes the argument that theology requirements are foundational to Catholic education and therefore should not be dropped.   

I had already read about the proposed changes in a feature in The Washington Post, “Why Notre Dame’s curriculum review raises far-reaching Catholic identity questions.” The Post article opens with the statement, “As the University of Notre Dame conducts its 10-year review of curriculum standards, a proposal to reconsider requiring students to take theology and philosophy courses is raising concerns that such a change could endanger the institution’s Catholic identity.”

I agree with the premise of Daley's editorial and with the concerns raised in The Washington Post piece, yet to me, it is not just about Catholic identity or Christian mission, it is about the concept of "university." As a liberal arts grad myself, I think it is important for every educated person to be schooled in the intellectual disciplines across the board. If an institution is a university, but its students only specialize in limited disciplines, has the "university" aspect of education in fact become undone? I want doctors, lawyers, businessmen and scientist to at least be exposed to literature, philosophy and theology from reliable academic sources rather than from cable TV and popular media.

The Universtiy of Notre Dame
(America Magazine photo)

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A Humorous Post-script

The thing about liberal arts students, especially English majors, perhaps, is that they can wind up working in any number of fields. I happened to gravitate to social services and healthcare. A humorous post-script: One night, not long after I began working night shift as a registered nurse on a heart surgery floor, I was able to aid a patient family member by drawing upon my knowledge as an English major. At around 2:30 in the morning when all was quiet, a young man came up to the nurses’ station with an unusual question: “What was the name of that play where the old king was trying to decide how to divide his inheritance between his daughters?” Who knows what conversations in the patient’s room prompted him to seek out a citation reference?

“That was King Lear, by William Shakespeare” I responded.

“Yes, that’s it! Thanks.” And the young man returned to the patient room where he was visiting.  My young nursing colleagues all turned to me in silence with raised eyebrows.

“What?” I said to them, “You didn’t get that in nursing school?”


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