Why Study Liberal Arts?

Why Study Liberal Arts?


Dean Coleman at one point, as you were preparing for your state of the college remarks back in September, you actually did a Google search of “Liberal Arts” and found some interesting things. Tell us about that. I wanted to see what the internet is saying about liberal arts education. And so I searched on “liberal arts degrees,” and I wanted to see what Google would tell me. Google will, when you type in the search box, it’ll give you some suggestions to fill in your search. “Liberal Arts degrees are worthless and useless” were the two choices that first came up on that list. And I was a little depressed and despondent about that because I knew I was talking with all of the chairs and other people and CLA. How can I go and tell them that this is what Google is saying about the work that they do. So I then searched “engineering degrees are” and “business degrees are”… I might have even typed in “science degrees are,” and the answers that came back were “worthless and useless.” So I know that we were in good company in terms of what the internet thinks about higher education, apparently. But I do think it tells us something. It tells us that we need to explain the value of what we do. We need to explain why it’s important. We need to explain why it matters in people’s lives. And in that way these are perfectly reasonable things that we have to explain both the students, to parents, to legislators, to society in general. Why study the liberal arts? What are the benefits? We can point to the benefits from a career perspective. We’ve got that data. We can show you the amazing lives people have through their liberal arts background. But we can also talk about the value of the liberal arts for building a strong and healthy society that… You know, one of the things that the liberal arts builds is empathy. You can’t study the liberal arts without looking at the world through other people’s eyes. That’s what every one of our disciplines is focused on. Whether we’re looking at history… We’re trying to understand how people in the past were looking at situations. If we’re doing political science and want to understand voters and what they’re thinking… People who are studying novels, plays–or writing novels and plays–and we’re trying to understand what the characters are thinking, what they’re feeling. What is the artist trying to convey to us in a work of art? In the liberal arts we’re always thinking through other people’s eyes. We’re trying to understand the way that other people… other people think. I think that’s deeply valuable for our society. I think it’s deeply valuable for our democracy. It’s the basis on which we really build common communities, is that we can understand each other. We might disagree. We might disagree really strongly, but we can at least try to understand. “Why do you hold that view that I find so opposite of the view that I have? What is it that’s making you think that way? What are the values you’re bringing to bear? And I think the liberal arts help us do that. I’ve also seen this in my own work. I was a liberal arts student. I was a history major. I was a political science major. And then I went on to graduate school in political science. I wasn’t necessarily expecting to get into academic administration, but here I am! I’m the dean of a college. That wasn’t part of the game plan that I laid out years ago. But I can tell you that in my job this ability to be empathetic and to think through the eyes of other people and to try to understand understand what are they trying to achieve? And what are their goals? And what are their values? And how are they perceiving situations in ways that I might not perceive the situation? But I need to know how they’re reading it. I need to know how they’re seeing it. That’s the only way that I can be effective, and it’s the only way that I can make sure that they’re in an environment that they can be effective as well. And that’s ultimately what we’re trying to do in academic administration is put people in environments where they could be successful. So I think the liberal arts helped train me very well for that because it… It’s in the nature of the training that I got–the education I got–to think about the world, the way that other people are viewing it. And how can I both understand them but how can I also be helpful to them and put them in a position to excel and to thrive? And ultimately that’s the definition of the job that I’m in. I’m supposed to be trying to find ways to put people in positions where they can thrive.

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