Does a liberal arts education still have value? Given the costs, the student debts incurred, the lack of employment opportunities related to the liberal arts in the marketplace, is it worth it? These primal questions are being asked in and outside of academia.
My answer is based on an interesting perspective – as a Fellow for the Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow program. Under the auspices of the Council of Independent Colleges, the program brings nonacademic professionals to campuses across the United States for week-long visits to meet and dialogue with students and faculty members. To date, I have done nine residencies.
When I first joined the program, I was told that the mission was, in part, to demonstrate and promote the value of a liberal arts education after graduation - in the “real” world. Over the years, this premise has become more and more significant for me – especially so, as I observe our nation’s current cultural and political struggles. But first, let me tell my story.
The residencies have taken me to parts of the country that I would have never visited otherwise. I have spoken to students, parents, faculty, and administrators. Their stories and insights about college are a far cry from what one hears in the ivied corridors of the Northeast.
I have been deep in Appalachia, where most of the college students are first generation – often in defiance of their families’ wishes, who see college as a waste of time and money. I have been to rural areas of Northern Michigan – places which are losing their young people to the cities – spotted with desolate towns waiting for an unknown fate. And the local colleges struggle to find students from abroad to fill their classrooms. I have been to deeply religious schools, where literal readings of the Bible are taught alongside Marx and Hegel. I have been to hip urban centers, where a studied boredom belies other forms of disaffection.
Yet, at every single campus I have visited, despite the evident challenges, I have always found genuine excitement and inspiration, forged by a community of students and teachers, eager to take on the world and create a better future. And I have always been welcomed openly and generously.
Once invited, I typically work with my liaison to develop programs individualized for the needs of the school. I usually ask who invited me and why. What did they see in my background that was of interest? And how can I apply that to the present needs at the school? As a result my residencies have covered a fascinating array of topics and fields – far more I would think then if I came with my personal agenda in place.
We have done workshops that transformed the most recalcitrant of writers into engaging storytellers, who couldn’t wait to pen their words to paper. I have organized a packed auditorium of suspicious classical musicians into a rollicking ensemble of improvising choristers. With art students in tow, we explored the frontiers of art where the boundaries between visual, music, and language evaporate. At my suggestion, part of a semester’s curriculum was built around the work of Charlie Chaplin – offering the opportunity for both students and faculty to examine the multiple dimensions – artistic, intellectual, and political – of this influential and innovative genius.
We held a forum with conservative evangelicals, exploring our experiences, not our beliefs - discovering that our spiritual strivings transcended any of our ideologies. At another school, we found out just how practical and real-world the study of philosophy can be, when we applied newly honed critical thinking skills to the modern maze of ethical and moral questions faced by every student - about drugs, alcohol, and sex - when they first step onto a college campus.
I will never forget how the professional students in one MBA program sat at the edge of their seats as we discussed the fragile relationship between trust and the financial system. This was their story and they lived with it every day. And in the undergraduate business classes, I always argue the case that Shakespeare is one of the most practical courses one can take – and how it will impact one’s business life in ways that are unimaginable.
At every campus, I also visited with the President or Provost - and often with the Deans, and sometimes, even the Trustees. (I spent 9 year as a trustee as a school in San Francisco.) We discussed administrative issues – budgets, student debt, retention, and the dynamic relationships between faculty, administration, and trustees. And if that was not enough, we always seemed to get around to the pressing existential question of what will academia look like in the coming decades.
At every school, I am asked to give a campus-wide lecture or presentation. In time, I came to the view that it would be best to present one good idea or strategy from my own professional life – something I use every day - an idea that could be presented in a few minutes and could actually change a student’s life forever.
The answer? For me, it was simple: “How to ask a good question.” And the more I presented the idea, in all its simplicity, the more it became clear that learning how to ask the right question, in all its ramifications, is a pre-requisite to all of education.
So what is the takeaway, if any? What is the lesson I have learned after all these years?
As important as it is to study STEM and other practical courses, the liberal arts remain essential. For the skills learned through STEM programs are but tools – a skill set that frankly will be outdated within a few years, if not months, after leaving school. Knowledge of these tools alone, while important, in themselves will not lead to success. Rather it is how these tools are wielded that will make the difference. It is the creativity, the adaptability, the ability to think critically that leads to achievement. The awareness of how these tools will impact people and the world around us is what will create a better future. It is these “higher order” skills of inventiveness, ingenuity, and intuition that come from a transformative liberal arts education.
I use the word “transformative” purposively. It is not enough to take a few Gen Ed courses to fulfill the liberal arts requirement. One must invest in a liberal arts experience, so that one is transformed - even if it is but for a few years as an undergraduate. To be a young journalist, so one knows what it is to investigate and uncover the truth. To memorize enough Shakespeare, so that one’s internal thought patterns are permanently rewired. To study enough music that you experience new feelings and emotions that you may never have known were possible. To explore enough philosophy to realize how illusory our world may actually be. To study history, so we have a perspective of who we are in the scheme of things. And to explore enough science – both big and small - to be humbled by the totality of it all. Only then, can we take our pragmatic, professional skills and apply them to our world - as alive individuals, and not simple automatons.
I have seen first-hand how a liberal arts education impacts us as citizens of a nation, both individually and collectively. I have seen just how much it can help us dissect the cultural and political boundaries that bind. Perhaps, it will also teach us how to reach across the divide to find the paths to a better brotherhood.
The Woodrow Wilson experience has made me aware of how precious my own liberal arts education was. I hope I have given something in return.