My college search process was mostly based on a belief that the purpose of a bachelor’s degree was to train for a particular career. I was motivated to earn my degree so I would be prepared and qualified for a job that would align with my interests and provide financial stability. I researched universities that had the kind of pre-professional degree I was looking for and was eager to take classes that would teach me the job-related skills I thought I needed to be employable. Interestingly enough, a few years later I walked across the graduation stage a devout believer in a broad, liberal arts education, one the expands far beyond a pre-professional education. That's the great thing about college - your ideas evolve. While I was in high school, my impression of the phrase “liberal arts” was that it meant (1) you had to take a lot of classes you didn’t get to choose, (2) you had to read a lot of ancient literature, and (3) you had to be good at some kind of art…? College marketing material didn’t do a great job dispelling my misconceptions (mostly they included lots of pictures of busts of Plato and Socrates…).
The reality, of course, is that the liberal arts refer to much more than ancient European texts and visual arts. In the phrase itself, “liberal” refers to free or freedom, and “arts” refer to practice. The term is intended to convey the knowledge and practices of being a free person in our society, both physically and intellectually. The liberal arts disciplines teach us the skills and ideas to be actively engaged in civic and political life. Tbh, that sounds pretty great to me. And indeed some of the most transformative parts of my undergraduate education came with my exposure to coursework in sociology, psychology, politics, literature, critical theory, ethnic studies, gender and sexuality studies, and media studies. These disciplines enhanced my analytical and communication skills, expanded my critical consciousness, refined my sense of perspective, and taught me to question assumptions.
Now, when I think of a liberal arts education, I also think of how the liberty aspect indicates that students will have the freedom and flexibility to explore a wide range of academic disciplines in order to become well-rounded, broadly-educated scholars who will have the skills to pursue a wide range of career paths and the knowledge to collaborate with colleagues across multiple industries. (Again, that sounds ideal, right?) At Tufts, a liberal arts education exposes students to the humanities, the arts, the social sciences, the natural and physical sciences, mathematics, and the study of languages, while still allowing for student agency and personal curiosity to guide course selection. Students can dive into their existing interests, combine multiple areas of study, and discover new disciplines they were not exposed to in high school - all during their four year experience. A school that values the liberal arts will be a place where you can find courses like, “Computing for Developing Regions,” “Understanding Children through Film,” “American Literature and the Environment,” “Engineering Forensics,” “Health, Disease, and History,” and “The Power of Feminist Art.” (Mhm, these are real Tufts classes for fall 2019). Pursuing a liberal arts degree allows us to build skills that transcend a single career field, instilling an intellectual flexibility, creativity, and capacity for problem-solving that hold professional value no matter our chosen industry. Institutions that believe in the liberal arts will also value small, discussion-based class environments that allow students to share their ideas and build relationships, while finding mentors in their faculty. This relationship-oriented education creates opportunities for us to interrogate and wrestle with ideas out loud and in writing, rather than indiscriminately accepting information contained in textbooks. Ultimately a liberal arts experience is meant to teach us how to think, rather than what to think.
Now I see the power that rests in a liberal arts education. A broad approach to learning is how we come to see the ethical considerations of scientific research or technological advances. It’s how we come to build compassion and take the perspective of those with different identities and life experiences than our own. It’s how we see how systems, structures, institutions, and laws shape the access and opportunities of everyday people and communities. And yes, you’ll still be able to get a job. In fact, with a foundation in the liberal arts, the doors will actually remain open for an enormous range of professional pathways and graduate school opportunities. If you (or your parents) need more convincing, our own student outcomes are evidence of that.