Now More than Ever . . . The Importance of a Liberal Arts Education
Beware. Graduation season is upon us. College seniors everywhere will be told that their opportunities are boundless, that their challenges are formidable, and that they are the best hope for the future.
All this is generally true . . . just as it has been for all previous graduating classes.
Last week marked the 50th anniversary of Alvernia’s first graduates, the Class of 1961. We call this handful of impressive alumnae, The Fab Four. They left college indelibly shaped by their teachers, the Franciscan Sisters, and subsequently spent significant time themselves as teachers. They graduated as racial injustice was beginning to be seen as a national disgrace and as the Cold War was heating up. Vatican II and the British Invasion of the Beatles and the Stones were about to begin. These four women were ready for it all.
The Class of 2011 numbers almost 400. These graduates have more diverse opportunities and are confronted with challenges unimagined a half century ago. And like earlier generations of students, these individuals leave college well prepared for life by a challenging, values-based liberal arts education.
Amidst a troubled economy, it is understandable that most students (and parents) prefer a major like accounting, criminal justice, occupational therapy, or nursing that may lead more directly to a first job. Yet a liberal arts education has never been a more essential part of college.
This past semester I was fortunate to team teach an honors seminar, “Faith and Doubt in Modern Literature.” Besides enjoying the discussions with talented literature and theology colleagues and our impressive students, I had the opportunity to talk with several groups of students about why they found courses in the liberal arts valuable, especially when most majored in professional fields.
What I heard consistently was that students, regardless of major, are drawn to such courses because, in their words, they “help me to see myself,” “to open my mind,” “to walk a mile in another’s shoes,” and “to visit other cultures and historical eras.”
Several students remarked that their liberal arts courses pushed them “far outside their comfort zones” and encouraged creative, open-ended thinking rather than memorization and passive learning. One student, while acknowledging he liked his intended major, announced rather proudly to a large group of fellow students, that his philosophy course had greater personal significance: it compelled him to re-examine his beliefs. One student remarked that literature and theology classes had “made him squirm,” by posing uncomfortable questions and forcing him to question unexamined assumptions.
As I pointed out to one group, they had praised these courses for apparently contradictory but really interconnected reasons: both for prompting deep self-reflection and for challenging them to look beyond themselves to probe beliefs and cultures quite different from their own.
There is a lesson here for us older “students.” Learning about subjects far removed from our main interests helps us become well rounded individuals. Experiencing intellectual discomfort and struggling with complex issues and their ethical implications provide invaluable learning for our lives—as professionals, parents, or citizens of the world in a democratic society.
Surely, students (and all citizens) need to learn about the world’s diverse societies and cultures, past and present, and the diversity of human experience. It has never been more important that today’s graduates reflect on differing responses through the ages to questions about the existence of God and the meaning of human nature, goodness, justice, and a free society. Such inquiry also has the power to help cultivate in our students habits of the mind, habits of the heart, and habits of the soul.
Today’s graduates understand that the bar for them is set high. At Alvernia, we tell our freshmen and especially our seniors that we expect them to do well and to do good.
A strong liberal arts education, when combined with first rate professional preparation, can provide skills for the workplace and values for life. And that is something important shared by the Class of 2011 with Alvernia’s Fab Four and all others who 50 years ago threw their caps in the air on graduation day and marched out to serve their communities and change the world.
The Office of the President Staff
Assistant to the President
Francis Hall, Room 212
Francis Hall, Room 212
Mon - Fri 8:00 am – 4:30 pm