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Advancing the Liberal Arts in and Beyond the Classroom

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In "A Liberal Education: Preparation for Career Success," (6 December 2011) A.G. Lafley wisely extols the virtues of the liberal arts as an outstanding means for future employment.

As a dean of the school of liberal arts at the Savannah College of Art and Design (and graduate of Haverford College) I applaud Lafley and share his pro-liberal arts education sentiments. But there is a deeper issue that needs to be addressed. Not all students are alike, adept or knowledgeable about the arts, humanities, sciences and social sciences. For a variety of reasons, many students intentionally choose not to attend a small liberal arts college. What is the role of the liberal arts for them?

I cringe at the false dichotomy of careers and the liberal arts, and remind any student, parent, faculty member or staffer within listening distance that a liberal arts education is essential for students to learn how to read, write, think and speak critically and thoughtfully. A student with math skills who appreciates Shakespeare has, to use Lafley's phrase, enhanced "mental dexterity" to solve problems and to innovate.

The odious phrase "the real world" assumes that the university is unlike the world of blue and white collars. But the private and public sectors are not replete with multiple choice exams. Rather, entry-level (and senior) employees must write cogent narratives, summaries and explanations. We must digest and interpret information, some of which is unfamiliar to us. Our mental dexterity enables us to perform these tasks precisely because of our exposure to the unfamiliar.

I recall an undergraduate baroque music class, in which the professor assigned works by Bach. My final project was to review -- orally and in writing -- Glenn Gould's 1955 and 1981 recordings of the Goldberg Variations. I must have listened to each of the performances six times. The assignment developed my love for music, but more importantly it honed listening and organizational skills as it fostered an appreciation for subtlety, detail, nuance and variance.

Why, then, does this false dichotomy between the liberal arts and careerism endure, and who is perpetuating it? When unemployment abounds, parents, guidance counselors and even college admissions officers too often conflate a major with a permanent career. Students know better; they talk to their peers who tell them that a physics or photography major is not forever a physicist or a photographer. In today's economy, both may find themselves as budding entrepreneurs.

"Liberal arts versus careerism" is also promulgated by politicians. Florida Governor Rick Scott did not help the cause when he recently suggested shifting state funding toward degrees and programs that have better job opportunities. We know that those jobs and programs will evolve; at SCAD we remind ourselves that many of tomorrow's careers have not yet been invented.

Third, the lessons taught and learned in a liberal arts classroom are, to use the vernacular phrase, heady stuff. Reading Darwin, Durkheim and Melville will make most of us both confused and enlightened. Thinking -- stretching one's brain -- can and, at times, should be hard work. Liberal arts faculty and deans must do a better job informing students that interpreting unfamiliar texts is an employable skill that will benefit them beyond the classroom. We also have to explain that the liberal arts are not the broccoli that is separate from the delicious food they are receiving elsewhere in their university curriculum. If we describe essential learning as onerous, our students will hear us and think of it as yucky-tasting cod liver oil.

Conversations with students reveal that they recognize the merits of their liberal arts classes. Their dilemma is that they want it all, and there are only so many courses and electives available in each quarter.

Educators must therefore consider how to incorporate the liberal arts beyond the classroom. Here at SCAD, we started "The Art of the Mind" lecture series, where distinguished scholars and writers speak about their areas of expertise. By seeing and hearing Gail Collins, Stanley Fish, Ed O'Connor and Barry Schwartz, among others, our students determine for themselves how their passion and creativity intersect with the liberal arts. The popularity of these lectures indicates that there is both value and merit of advancing the liberal arts in novel ways.

The future of liberal education demands that we reinvent and re-imagine it, especially for those unfamiliar with it. There will always be Shakespeare and statistics. Capulet and chi-squares may or may not be forgotten, but if we teach our subjects passionately, our students will learn how to think. They will be wiser, employed and forever grateful.

Robert M. Eisinger is the dean of the school of liberal arts at the Savannah College of Art and Design.

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