Liberal Arts Under Attack

In Defense of a Well-Rounded Education

Natalie Guyette, a Mount Mary 2017 graduate with a major in English, is now a producer for Central Time on Wisconsin Public Radio, where she is responsible for “exploring ideas – big and small” and finding “the best guests to discuss these thought-provoking topics,” according to the WPR website.

Guyette said she was prepared to do this because of her liberal arts education.

“Without liberal arts, it’s harder to connect with people,” Guyette said.

Guyette thanks her education for her job and the skills she uses daily.

“Having the training to think about different perspectives has helped me generate different topic ideas,” Guyette said.

Despite their perceived value, liberal arts programs are under assault at higher education institutions across the nation. Articles such as “Liberal arts majors are a dying breed” (MarketWatch), “The vanishing liberal arts degree” (The American Interest) and “A rising call to promote STEM education and cut liberal arts funding” (New York Times) paint a bleak picture of the future of liberal arts programs.

A number of colleges are also reducing or eliminating majors within the liberal arts.

This past March, UW-Stevens Point proposed cutting 13 majors in the liberal arts category in an attempt to increase enrollment. The idea was said to have been formed to make potential students interested by focusing on majors with “a clear connection to a future career.”

UW-Stevens Point Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs and Provost Greg Summers highlighted the importance of non-liberal arts majors to the school.

“Programs focused on applied learning and career preparation have a much deeper and longer history in defining the institution’s identity,” Summers said.

Some students at the university don’t feel the same way. UW-Stevens Point Spanish and psychology double major Mara Gerhards explained how the proposal has affected her.

“My reaction was like most people – fearful and disbelief,” Gerhards said. “It upsets me that budget cuts have been so devastating to the university, and that this is the best thing the university could come up with.”

Gerhards believes that taking away liberal arts majors would be a mistake.

“You can’t simply remove or diminish the importance of language and learning about people and society,” Gerhards said. “These are things that are just as important to people in STEM programs as it is for those in the humanities.”

Importance of Liberal Arts

Cutting liberal arts programs in hopes of increasing enrollment might be short-sighted. Majoring in the humanities realm does not guarantee unemployment or a lack of skills after graduation. In fact, there is evidence that employers value employees who have had liberal arts classes and have walked away with skills like problem solving and communication.

According to a 2014 report from the Association of American Colleges & Universities, “4 out of 5 employers agree that all students should acquire broad knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences.” 

While some schools like UW-Stevens Point have less of a focus on liberal arts classes, Mount Mary is a liberal arts-based school. Students take required classes in things like art, science, math, English, foreign language and more.

According to philosophy professor Austin Reece, two crucial focuses to Mount Mary are philosophy and theology.

“To this day, Search for Meaning remains the one course that all students have to take, regardless of major,” Reece said. “That is one defining feature of (Mount Mary University’s) ongoing commitment to humanities.”

Liberal arts classes have much more to offer than a career opportunity. According to Reece, learning and practicing philosophy has benefits no matter your career.

“I think of philosophy as a tool that can be used in any part of life, professional life or personal life,” Reece said. “In any career field, you’re going to use critical thinking.”

Mount Mary’s views are well known to its staff. Mount Mary’s Director of Advising and Career Development Michelle Pliml said Mount Mary prides itself in educating the whole person.

“We’re not about just training for one thing; we are a liberal arts-based college,” Pliml said.

In a liberal arts-based school, the goal is for students to reach their full potential.

“We want our students to be creative,” Pliml said. “We want them to be agile. We want them to be critical thinkers. We want them to be women that care about social justice issues, and are exposed to them so that they are a whole entire person.”

Liberal arts majors may not lead directly to a specific career, but not all people find that troublesome. Reece said that certain majors are helpful in ways that don’t involve jobs and money.

“When I think of humanities, I think of approaching a greater understanding of what it means to be human,” Reece said.

Through literature and other classes that fall under the category of humanities, the information you gain is not simply career-focused, but can improve your understanding of your surroundings.

“You can explore lives other than your own,” Reece said.

Philosophy major Nicole Holstein said liberal arts classes made her start to question who she was as a person and who she wants to be.

“I wouldn’t be where I am in life if I didn’t take those courses,” Holstein said.

Holstein believes that taking away those classes would be damaging.

“If you eliminate courses that get you to start thinking for yourself, who you want to be, and how you want to contribute to the world, people are going to be lost,” Holstein said. 

Liberal Arts and Careers

Technical-type classes are not the only kind of classes that help students in their future careers. There is a misconception that liberal arts classes do not teach students useful skills. The skills that students are given are known as “soft skills,” like communication and critical thinking.

“It’s teaching you skills that are life applicable, not just something that you’re going to go use in a job,” Holstein said.

Classes and majors are not only skills. Taking classes in different areas can help students to explore the world and themselves. Pliml said that it is okay for incoming students to not know their major and try different subjects to find out.

“I think we need to normalize that it’s okay to be undeclared,” Pliml said. “Students sometimes just pick really quickly because they feel pressure to pick one thing, or because they feel that they’re supposed to know what their passion is really early in life. There’s no way students could figure that out until they actually try things.”

For students who know their passions, there are still benefits to taking classes in several areas.

“I think we’re limiting the power of some of those courses if we’re thinking it’s just checking off requirements to get to a major,” Pliml said.

It’s okay for students not to have a direct clear path. In fact, it can open the door for several career pathways.

“Career paths,” Reece said. “I don’t know if that is the goal of education. I think that’s a part of life, but maybe there’s a false dilemma. It’s either liberal arts or a technical degree, or can it be both? If you come out with only one skill, that’s a bleak picture.”

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