For those committed to the mission of a liberal arts education, it’s hard not to feel a little defensive these days. The liberal arts seem besieged on all fronts. Critics look in from the outside to question whether institutions are really delivering what they promise. Others wonder about the price tag, which can be steep—even when factoring in scholarships and other forms of aid (as does Money Magazine’s list of 2018-2019 college rankings).
But the forces that can jeopardize the traditional liberal arts can also come from within. Witness the news last week of cuts to programs at Goucher College, where majors in math, music, physics, religion, elementary and special education, studio art, and theater (among other programs) are being phased out. Such news items come with alarming regularity.
Taking the long view can bring some solace. Norman Jones, senior fellow at the Association of American Colleges and Universities, offered a historical overview of the ongoing battle between “generalists” and “careerists” in his 2016 piece entitled “The continuous death and resurrection of the liberal arts.” According to Jones, no one camp is yet winning the battle.
But perhaps more rejuvenating, especially as we begin a new academic year, is a straightforward, succinct articulation of why the liberal arts continue to be important. And this is what Karl Voss gave us last week in his editorial for The Hechinger Report. More than simply a defense of tradition, Voss suggests that a liberal arts education provides the best preparation for the uncertainties of the future—including the realities of a swiftly changing job market and equally rapid changes in technology. Voss writes:
Liberal arts students learn about the breadth of the world and the ideas that have been central to our understanding of humanity and the world around us. Those skills enhance our ability to adapt to the future by widening our view of the world and increasing our capacity to handle complex and ill-defined problems and situations.
Voss confesses that at age 18, his life aspiration was to create art for album covers. In retrospect, he is grateful for a liberal arts education that broadened his horizons and helped him prepare for many other possibilities.
It appears that he did all right for himself; it’s not difficult to imagine that he brings that original, creative flair to his work as a dean. (Voss was recently named Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Bucknell University).
Being well-prepared for uncertainty entails developing a host of skills and a set of aptitudes—the ability to make connections as well as the capacity not just to tolerate ambiguity, but to appreciate it. A good liberal arts education offers this kind of preparation for the future. And with thoughtful mentoring, such as what is offered through the wide variety of programs at NetVUE campuses, students can also develop a strong sense of who they are and what they are called to do, even as the world around them is rapidly changing. It’s impossible to quantify those aspects of what a good liberal arts education cultivates in a young adult—and it certainly won’t fit into a column in a Money Magazine list.