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A Student's Perspective on the Liberal Arts

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In June, under the leadership of Representative Larry Seaquist, the Washington State House Committee on Higher Education held a work session to discuss the importance of the liberal arts to the state. When so much of the higher education agenda seems to be rather narrowly focused on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education, it was encouraging to see the membership of the House Committee think more broadly about the value of education.

Because I serve as the Vice President for Academic Affairs at The Evergreen State College and the chair of the Washington Consortium for the Liberal Arts (WaCLA), I was invited to lead the discussion. Although I did a reasonable job of discussing the basics of a liberal education and pointing to the exciting work arising from a recent publication from the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) demonstrating that employers overwhelmingly favor hiring individuals with broad liberal arts backgrounds, my most important contribution was to invite a Whitworth University student to join me in speaking to the Committee.

Rebecca Korf is a rising senior at Whitworth. Last year she wrote an essay discussing the value of the liberal arts that was selected as the winner of WaCLA's statewide essay contest. I was certain that Rebecca, as a confident and articulate student, could talk about what her liberal arts education has meant for her far better than could any faculty member or administrator. Given the response she received from Committee members, I was absolutely correct in my assessment!

Her perspective deserves wider attention and thus I'm taking the opportunity to share her thoughts.

When I tell people that I'm majoring in biochemistry and minoring in philosophy, they're usually pretty surprised. Philosophy, or any of the general education classes I have taken, often seem irrelevant to a person like me who wants to study and manipulate molecules for a living.

I have found, however, that my liberal arts education actually makes me a better scientist.

For example, my sophomore year I decided to take an ethics course rather than Intro to Biochemistry. The science course would have given me a jump start on memorizing amino acids, but I am so happy that I chose to take the ethics course. Writing my first response paper to Aristotle and wrestling with reading Kant were painful experiences (I think those philosophers might have benefited from a more well-balanced education with more writing courses themselves) but those intellectual challenges exercised parts of my brain that weren't engaged in science courses. I developed critical thinking, reading comprehension, and communication muscles. Today, I have the distinct advantage not only of being able to talk intelligently about Locke and Hume at dinner parties, but also to apply the essential skills of logic and reasoning to areas ranging from inorganic chemistry to the latest political arguments that are on the ballot.

I am confident that these skills will prove useful in the world outside of college, where I hope to go into pharmacology. There, I might not find much use for the equations I memorized in my introductory physics class, but the problem solving tools that I gained from all of the difficult homework assignments will give me the grit and creativity to solve tough synthesis problems. All the hours I spent practicing piano for my fine arts credit trained me to have the focus and perseverance so necessary when working on long term projects. My public speaking and writing classes gave me the skill and confidence to communicate my ideas well and the ability to understand the ideas of others.

The liberal arts have not only made me a better scientist, but also a better person in general.

I'll let you in on a secret: college students love to complain about general education courses. But I've talked to friends in the workplace, at grad school, and on my campus who say that those courses are the ones for which they are most thankful. Those classes push students outside of their intellectual comfort zones and change lives.

As part of my liberal science education, I've had exposure to different cultures, ideas, and perspectives that give me more empathy and a deeper understanding of the people around me. Rather than being sheltered in the sterile scientific world of experiments and data, I have seen the messy, abstract part of life in classes like History of Modern Art and Gender and Faith in Film and Literature. Through study abroad trips, I got to walk along the Great Wall while studying technology and culture in Beijing, Hong Kong, and Kuala Lumpur and to ride the tube to hear evensong in Westminster Cathedral in a math history class in London, Berlin, and Rome. I have seen how big the world is and better understand different cultures and my scientific heritage.

Through this liberal arts education I have the training to succeed not only in the research lab of a university, but also in the much scarier laboratory of real life.

Education is not just about cramming as many facts in my head as possible in four years (as much as it seems sometimes). Frankly, you can probably find most of the answers to my spectroscopy final on your iphone in less than 30 seconds. But what your iphone can't give you is the training that a liberal arts education provides. By pushing students outside of their intellectual comfort zones, the liberal arts provides essential virtues like creativity and curiosity. The more varied an education I receive, the more tools I gain in my intellectual toolbox to solve whatever problems life throws at me. We want our citizens to be well-rounded, fulfilled people who can persevere in the face of challenges and apply critical thinking skills to society's multitudes of issues--and the liberal arts prepares students to do just that.

It often seems that liberal arts is a luxury or an expendable add on. However, I have found that nothing could be further from the truth. The liberal arts are foundational to training a new generation. It's not an extra, but an essential--especially as we enter an age where effective communication across disciplinary boundaries is even more important than ever.

The liberal arts produces graduates who are effective and versatile employees, informed and well-reasoned citizens, confident communicators, and fulfilled and engaged human beings as a whole. I so very much appreciate the education that I'm currently receiving at Whitworth University, and I am confident that the liberal arts have positioned me and my classmates for future success.

I hope you agree with me that Rebecca Korf is a wonderful spokesperson for the liberal arts. She makes the case so very well that we don't have to choose between STEM education and a liberal arts education. Indeed, the two are not mutually exclusive. We need to educate citizens who are scientifically literate while ensuring that our scientists are able to make full use of the ways of learning and communicating that extend beyond the sciences.

Please share Rebecca's perspective broadly!