With National College Decision Day looming on May 1, high school seniors are repeatedly checking their inboxes with one eye open as parents think anxiously of how much it will cost. The season of college acceptance is upon us. Months, and often years, of fine-tuning essays, tours, doing leadership things for leadership’s sake, and surviving standardized tests, comes down to an e-mail. (Are acceptance letters still physically mailed out anymore?)
Misguided or not, students and parents alike will place some of their self-esteem, their worth, in what a college admission letter says. Inherent in this conversation are the questions: “Was it all worth it? Will it all be worth it?” Both hindsight and foresight figure in as all involved determine from which institution to pick.
During my tenure in higher education, I have had numerous conversations with prospective students and their parents. Anecdotally, the parents are doing more talking these days as they focus in on postgraduate job prospects and balance it with sky-high costs. Questions abound about the value of taking foreign language, art history, and philosophy when all their child wants to do is become a physical therapist. What the parents truly want to ask is, “Why on earth should I have to pay for this?” Let me tell you.
The liberal arts are not the foundation that many colleges and universities, admissions counselors, and professors espouse them to be. No, that sells them short. The liberal arts are so much more. Rather than provide a foundation, the liberal arts provide illumination. What we need today, more than ever, are “T”-shaped students who are, and continue to become, “T”-shaped leaders.
Think of the top cross of the T as the liberal arts and let it represent the breadth of knowledge we all need to thrive in a time of collaboration, paradigm shifts and information overload. We need this breadth to make new connections across ways of knowing, to synthesize seemingly disparate and conflicting information, and to work well with others.
Innovation and new ways of thinking will not come from an individual acting in isolation, but rather from groups of people working at the edges of their disciplines where they interact with others. In short, individuals who play well with others and know a thing or two about the people sitting next to them and what they are interested in.
The illumination provided by the liberal arts light the depths of the needed disciplinary expertise our specialized fields demand, i.e., the I of the T. Nearly every day we are inundated with groundbreaking research that resulted from our ability to think more deeply and creatively than we have in the past. Much like lights in a park show us new trails to travel, the liberal arts illuminate new and undiscovered paths for us to explore. Liberal arts as illumination allows light to be directed to our professions and be reflected back from the same, incorporating the expertise of the disciplinary depth, allowing for even more understanding. In this context, the liberal arts are alive and, more important, are connected to, not separate from, individual disciplines and professions.
All of this may sound wonderful to those of us who teach at liberal arts institutions. Let’s call it confirmation bias. Let me share an example that seems to resonate with students and parents alike. In her book “Visual Intelligence,” Amy Herman uses artwork and what can be learned from close encounters with works of art to enhance our awareness of the worlds we inhabit.
Being a physiologist, I never truly understood the social, political and economic contexts that can be gleaned from simply staring at, and thinking deeply about, a work of art hanging on the wall of a museum. Or the creations of my 5-year-old daughter hanging on the wall of my office, for that matter. As I contemplate masterpieces and future masterpieces alike, I begin to see things differently.
As I reflect on my own field of exercise physiology and human performance, and the myriad and rapid changes that have taken place in the past 20 years, I am amazed at the speed of change and the depth of new insights. Five years ago we were all told to exercise 60 minutes a day, and today we know that short, quick intervals accomplish the same benefits. Ways of thinking, ways of knowing, ways of understanding have accelerated apace.
If I am not thinking across disciplines and making connections to them, if my knowledge is so specific and tunneled that I cannot find relevance in others, I cannot begin to prepare my students for the world they will soon face. Given the technological advancements that we have yet to imagine, I am preparing them for a world that does not yet exist. Without a light to shine on the dark, murky, untraveled path ahead would be an injustice. To not equip them with the skills necessary to traverse that world would leave them hopelessly stuck in today.
The liberal arts, and the illumination they provide, allow us to explore, navigate, and create, a world unknown.
Mark Blegen is associate dean at the Henrietta Schmoll Scholl of Health, St. Catherine University.