If there were ever a time when independent thinking, clear self-expression, and a background in more than one academic area, now has got to be it. To be clear, “liberal arts” does not mean only arts and humanities, though that is how you often see it used; it really refers to “general education” (gen. ed.) wherein a student will, indeed, include arts and humanities, and the other disciplines of social sciences, maths, sciences and languages. Liberal arts colleges offer all of those. Students who have examined the required courses for the most competitive colleges will have noted all these areas consistently mentioned in a recommended high school program. Within a liberal arts program, students can major in biochemistry or astrophysics or philosophy or art history.

While many larger universities do offer liberal arts for incoming freshmen, such as Boston U, NYU or Cornell’s Colleges of Arts and Sciences, or the University of Michigan’s College of Literature, Science and the Arts, those in the know very often aim directly for a liberal arts college offering small classes, great interaction with profs and students in other years, and the ability to try out some areas before committing to a major in third year.

How many 17-year-olds know exactly what they want to do with their lives? Some have believed since childhood that their future is in medicine or engineering. But most aren’t that committed, and if they think they know, they can find reality of courses at university very different from high school. The gradual disappearance of the bachelor of architecture (B. Arch.) degree is the result of students switching after two years and discovering their courses transfer to no other program, with time and money wasted. Yet one father, whose son couldn’t pass calculus in the first year civil engineering program he had begun to hate, expressed, “I’m not paying all that money for my son to find himself at college.” Fortunately, his college allowed him to switch to an “undecided” major, he lost no credits or scholarships, and he is now a happy park ranger graduate. With any luck, our students will reach age 35 and even older, and need to have a career worth getting up for each morning.

Another concern is that many talented young people have more than one strength, often in both “arts” and “sciences.” The valedictorian at a Toronto private school enrolled three years ago at Grinnell, a highly competitive and high-ranking liberal arts college in Iowa. He confessed having about 15 possible majors, with philosophy, Chinese (though he had no background), history, computer science, and math at the forefront. The Chinese was particularly rough, he reports, but after examining the school’s strong chemistry and math departments, and with the option of studying in Budapest for a term, he finds himself a content math honors student, doing paid research on campus this summer.

One might argue that if a person is uncertain at 17, are two more years sufficient to make a decision for your future? We all know people who made major switches after graduating and embarking on a career. Those two years in liberal arts give students a chance to try unexplored territory, get to know their school’s and their own strengths, and, of course, develop more maturity in an environment of motivated scholars and accessible professors.

In the earlier days of liberal arts, colleges required study in all areas to achieve the degree, and even today many colleges utilize some form of this approach. Fortunately for those of us weak in some disciplines, there are often comfortable choices to fulfill the distribution requirement. One student is currently struggling to complete a math course – ANY math course. Another found French his bugaboo. For me, if botany and astronomy hadn’t been available sciences, I’d still be an undergraduate. Colleges strive to develop students’ appreciation of different ways of examining knowledge. As well, one can often be pleasantly surprised by a subject they would never have thought of, and their projected major in biochem suddenly becomes Italian Studies.

Though some argue that a university education should lead directly to a job, many professions require additional degrees or diplomas or training. Your bachelor’s degree may be just the first step, and a broad, diverse background will stand you in better stead than you realize at the time. Increasingly, MBA, MD and other professional programs look favorably on such applicants, appreciating that students making a graduate commitment have tried other areas and bring that knowledge as well as their own experience to the program.

Checking on recent activities in my old home town of Ann Arbor, I chanced upon the name of a former student whose abbreviated resume looks like this:

After his bachelor’s degree and two years in Mexico, he became an M.D. from Wayne State Medical School, Detroit; later, Forensic Pathologist following serving as an intern, resident and fellow in Ann Arbor and Minneapolis. Then: both an M.S. and Ph.D. in History of Science, U Wisconsin-Madison. Now: Professor, in both the Departments of Pathology and History, U Michigan. And: Medical Examiner of a county in Michigan. For someone who could not surpass his twin brother in English class at Ypsi High, he has countless publications and an illustrious career with many high-profile cases. His bachelor’s degree was just the start.

As George Anders wrote in the August 1, 2017 Atlantic Monthly on “The Unexpected Value of the Liberal Arts,”

Pursuing the liberal-arts track isn’t a quick path to riches. First-job salaries tend to be lower than what’s available with vocational degrees in fields such as nursing, accounting, or computer science…Yet over time, liberal-arts graduates’ earnings often surge, especially for students pursuing advanced degrees. History majors often become well-paid lawyers or judges after completing law degrees, a recent analysis by the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project has found. Many philosophy majors put their analytical and argumentative skills to work on Wall Street. International-relations majors thrive as overseas executives for big corporations, and so on.

Why would MBA programs and businesses seek to recruit liberal arts graduates? In his article in the March 7, 2017 Globe and Mail “Why liberal arts degrees are more valuable than you might think,” Scott Stirrett writes

…when building a team, it is important that entrepreneurs hire individuals from all academic backgrounds, which means seeking out and hiring more humanities graduates as well, recognizing the unique skill-sets and experiences these individuals can bring.

Every academic discipline equips individuals with valuable tools and perspectives. Part of building a diverse workplace is ensuring there is a diversity of academic backgrounds. As a consequence of different life experiences and training, a chemical engineer is likely to see an issue differently than an art history graduate… countless studies have proven that companies that foster diversity are more successful than those that don’t.

CEO’s and CFO’s of big companies are not unaware of this.

Wellesley College writes of their students:

…the disciplined thinking, refined judgment, creative synthesis, and collaborative dynamic that are hallmarks of their Wellesley education are not only crucial to developing their leadership abilities, but are habits of mind that will serve them well throughout their lives, and be primary contributors to their success.

This comment goes beyond financial success, leading us to ask: Is the value of a liberal arts education really in getting you to the most lucrative career, even though it might take a bit longer? With an increasing number of undergraduates reporting mental health issues in areas of depression and anxiety, it is no wonder that Yale’s most popular course is “Psychology and the Good Life,” dubbed Happiness 101. Angela Moore of Reuters, picked up on Global News, CNN and Facebook reports:

Professor Laurie Santos … points to the psychological phenomenon of “mis-wanting,” which leads people to pursue the wrong goals in life. The search for life’s sweetest but most elusive treasure – happiness – brings nearly 1,200 Yale University undergraduates…for its most popular class ever. Social science has generated many new insights into what makes people happy and how they can achieve that…Santos said feelings of happiness are fostered through socialization, exercise, meditation and plenty of sleep. Money and possessions are often seen as goals in the game of life, but the route to happiness heads in a different direction.

So, does an education at a liberal arts college then give you a better shot at happiness? Given the emphasis on critical thinking, developing strong communication skills orally and in writing, exploring new areas and assessing your success, interacting in small classes with professors who really enjoy teaching, a student at a liberal arts college must surely be on the right path to self-discovery. Imagine a typical faculty Wednesday dinner in Lamont House. At my table: Invitee American Philosophical Assoc. Pres., Philosophy Prof. Alice Lazerowitz, hostess Judith (junior, NYC, philosophy honors thesis: Emmanuel Kant), Deborah (junior, Houston, TX, econ major), good pal Jean (freshman, Merion, PA, Russian major), Annique (junior, Paris, France, govt. major), Claire (senior, NJ, astrophysics major), Setsuko (sophomore, Japan, international studies), and moi (freshman, Toronto, undecided, rather dopey). Amazing conversation… and this was just normal.


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