The Liberal Arts

I excelled at mathematics and science in high school. Many of my classmates went on to study at Georgia Tech. I was never interested. Despite my lack of skill in foreign language, writing poetry, and interpreting literature, I only ever wanted to go to a college of liberal arts. At Emory, there was a “math or foreign language” requirement. I fulfilled both. My lowest grade was in a physical education class for modern dance, I took several classes of Russian Literature in Translation. I took plenty of mathematics courses, it was my major after all, and plenty of science courses since I started out a Chemistry major. But I also had a sense that I needed to take courses in a variety of areas in order to be exposed to the ideas of various fields. My sophomore year, I attended an 8 am Tuesday/Thursday psychology course for an entire semester because, although I could not fit psychology into my schedule, I thought I should know something about it.

Why? That is the question I am asking myself these days. What was it about my experience, my intrinsic belief in the liberal arts, that I want to convey to my students? What did I get out of my education that helps me today?

Many things get said about the value of the liberal arts these days, especially as whole schools shut down due to enrollment crises and others face serious and challenging enrollment declines. Emory’s mission statement includes: “As an institution dedicated to intellectual discovery and creativity, Emory College is charged both with generating new knowledge and with inventing new ways of understanding what is already known.” The University of Virginia, where I attended graduate school, has a new Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Ian Baucom, who speaks of “educating students for lives of inspired vocation and worldly citizenship.” The University of Oregon, where I was an Assistant Professor of Mathematics, has a mission statement that speaks of “the elemental skills of an arts and sciences education: … to question critically, think logically, communicate clearly, act creatively, live ethically.” Indiana University Bloomington, where I am now employed, has adopted the same idea: “The members of the College are dedicated to the liberal arts that teach our students to question critically, think logically, communicate clearly, act creatively, and live ethically.” Wake Forest College is a place that has been successful in meeting the challenge of Colleges of Liberal Arts to address the job-skills and employment concerns of students and their parents. I very much like the following part of their mission statement: “The College honors the ideals of liberal learning, which encourages habits of mind that ask “why,” that evaluate evidence, that are open to new ideas, that attempt to understand and appreciate the perspectives of others, that accept complexity and grapple with it, that admit error, and that pursue truth.”

As I was asking myself yesterday what I would say about the value of a liberal arts education, I thought of something close to the Wake Forest statement: We ask the questions that change the world. More importantly, we teach our students to ask those questions. Enhancing my ability to ask questions, and learning enough of a variety of subjects to be able to ask good questions, is the enduring benefit that I obtained from my liberal arts education.

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