Every June for the past seven years, I have spent an hour or so at each of our new student orientation sessions talking to the parents and families of incoming students. The purpose of these cozy chats (OK, they are actually large lecture presentations in the Billings Lecture Hall, the largest lecture hall on campus), is to help parents understand the journey that their children are about to embark upon as students at UVM, (in general), and in the College of Arts and Sciences, (in particular). Part of the presentation focuses on the challenges and changes that their students will encounter as they transition to college from high school and how they, as parents, can best help their students make this transition successfully. I also spend a good part of our time talking about degree requirements and the choices that students will be making as they design a four-year curriculum that uniquely suits their needs and interests. While the technical aspects of the requirements for our degrees are pretty simple to describe, much of what I find myself doing each year is paying greater attention to why we require our students to construct their degrees in the ways that I describe. In short, I find myself addressing a question that is never asked, but is likely on every parent’s mind: What is the value of a liberal arts education?
Particularly in these challenging economic times, students and their families question the value of their investments in their post-secondary education. It is not uncommon, then, for this concern to result in a shift of student enrollments towards professional degrees (e.g., business, engineering, education, etc.). For many students, this makes perfect sense: If you have a long-held dream of becoming a mechanical engineer, pursuing an ABET-accredited undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering is the most efficient way to realize that dream. But many 18-year-olds are not so clear on their career goals, and it is becoming increasingly rare for those who are clear to remain employed for their entire careers in the same field they chose when they were 18 years old. The real question for many students is: What kind of education will prepare me for a job that has not yet been created?
The answer, of course, is a liberal arts education.
Students (and their parents) agonize over their choice of a major, as though they were making a lifetime commitment to a career. But while the major is an important component of their degree, most of the courses they will take will be taken outside of their major. In fact, we limit the number of courses in a major that a student can take and apply towards their degree (no more than 45 of 120 credits can be in a student’s major). What is the purpose, then, of the major? The major should be in an area in which the student is both passionate and for which they have an aptitude. (Alas, it is not uncommon for some to make choices when only one of those two conditions apply!) The important part is learning how to take that passion and knowing what it takes to truly engage with the material in a substantive manner. The major may or may not end up being a vocational path (I joke with the parents each June that there is no “VP for Philosophy” position in the business world for our Philosophy majors to aspire to . . . although maybe there should be!), but it serves as a basis for students’ understanding of what it really takes to be successful when embarking on a new field of study or project and serves as a reminder that simple familiarity with something does not imply true understanding.
If the major provides students with a depth of understanding in one discipline, our distribution requirements ensure that they have the breadth and perspective needed to place this discipline within a broader context. We require all of our B.A. degree students to complete coursework in seven disciplinary areas: Fine Arts, Literature, Humanities, Mathematics, Social Science, Natural Science, and Foreign Language. Amongst these courses, at least one must have a focus outside of European culture and at least one must address issues of race and racism in the U.S. These requirements ensure that all of our B.A. degree students are at least exposed to the breadth of human knowledge; science majors need to understand how an artist views the world just as it is important for language majors to view literature and culture through the lens of a social scientist. This breadth informs students’ choices for their major (and is often the guide used by students who have not yet selected a major to explore and find their academic passion), and provides a common theme connecting students in the College. It also challenges students to overcome biases and fears borne out of previous experiences in these areas, encouraging them to think in new ways, challenging them to question, confront, and then discard or reaffirm some of the most fundamental ideas that they hold (or held). They learn to read, see, and hear from new perspectives; learn to critically assess what they’ve been exposed to; and to synthesize these new ideas into their own understanding of the world (or even the universe!). Most importantly, they learn how to communicate what they have learned, analyzed, and created so they can engage in meaningful dialogue with their peers, teachers, community, and family.
An essential component of a liberal arts education is choice. We do not prescribe the specific courses that students must take to fulfill their distribution and degree requirements; rather, we provide a framework, a structure within which they explore. They can choose from nearly 50 majors in the College and more than 80 minors (from across the University) and from hundreds of courses. For most students, even after completing their major, minor, and distribution requirements, they have the freedom to choose five, ten or more elective courses – 25 percent or more of the coursework for their degree.
So, what is the value of this liberal arts degree? What can someone do who is broadly educated, who has cultivated a lifelong passion for learning, who has plumbed the depths of knowledge in an area they find fascinating, who has the ability to critically assess and assimilate new ideas and knowledge and incorporate them into new ways of engaging with the world, and who can communicate their thoughts and bold new ideas with clarity and passion? Absolutely anything and everything!