THE BLOG
04/06/2016 01:06 pm ET Updated Apr 07, 2017

Liberal Arts, Public Policy and Public Service: A Perfect Combination

The recent primary election in Wisconsin, a state whose governor has, to some, declared open season on the liberal arts, offers a unique moment to consider the relationship between a broad undergraduate education and the realms of public policy and public service.

Skeptics assert that a wide-ranging study of the humanities, social existence, and the natural sciences lacks economic impact and hinders young people's ability to enter the work force and contribute to society. Even some elected officials have argued that a liberal arts education is not useful because it does not prepare a graduate for a specific job or career track.

Yet, somewhat ironically, the intellectual habits cultivated by studying classic texts across disciplines is perfectly suited to solving the problems of today and tomorrow, especially through roles in public policy and public service. In fact, I am convinced that greater access to a quality liberal arts education, rather than less, is exactly what is needed to grapple with the myriad complex debates that shape our nation and our economy.

Here are two recent examples:

The first was last month at Haverford College (my alma mater), which created a powerful experience to allow their students to appreciate how impactful they can be in society. Haverford organized a day-long symposium that brought together dozens of alumni from around the country who are leading trail-blazing public policy initiatives at the local, state, national and international levels.

The heart of the day was a series of terrific panels addressing how decisions about resource allocation impact higher education, the environment, health care, the criminal justice system, homelessness and even big data. Each of these sessions featured Haverford alumni at various stages of their careers, including, as the Haverford blog notes, the Chief of the Streets for the City of Boston, a New York City Council Member, the Founder and President of WEEMA International, and a Senior Chemist at a top environmental law firm, to name just a few.

After the event Haverford's Dean of Career and Professional Advising, Kelly Cleary reflected:

Public policy leaders craft legislation serving the interests of a wide range of individuals and communities, in the short- and long-term. A liberal arts education provides students with the skills that public policy leaders need to develop and communicate their positions -- historical contextualization, data analysis, rhetoric, an appreciation of diverse perspectives: the liberal arts make sense of the world by revealing its complexities.

The second example was two weeks later and across the country at Whitman College, where I work, where we helped our students explore these questions in a different way. Instead of offering a one-day intensive immersion, we organized Public Service Week 2016 to offer four very different learning opportunities.

The first, hosted by a student who had recently interned with the City Manager, featured a number of department heads from Walla Walla to talk about the challenges and delights of working in local government.

At the event, Assistant City Attorney Preston Fredrickson, a 2002 Whitman graduate, told our students:

A well-rounded education, like that obtained at a liberal arts college, provides an excellent foundation for a career in public service. It is that multi-disciplinary education that allows public servants to serve in a thoughtful, open-minded and meaningful way.

During Public Service Week, we also hosted information sessions for seniors about jobs with the AmeriCorps National Service Program and for younger students about internships at our local National Historic Site, the Whitman Mission.

We concluded the week with a presentation by one of our recent graduates who in just a few years has skyrocketed through the staff ranks of a Member of Congress (who he helped get elected after a 2010 redistrict that created the new seat).

Our students came away from the week telling us that they gained an expanded appreciation for why their liberal arts experience can help them play a role in shaping their communities, on behalf of their communities.

Yet, they were only scratching the surface of how vital they are to shaping a more just and sustainable world. In a powerful essay, author Eric Liu recently wrote about how a broad liberal arts education offers perhaps the most important professional skill imaginable, which is to understand power and power relationships in our society.

Because of their training in asking informed questions, bringing data and evidence to their assertions, approaching inquiry with a humble yet energized approach, and keeping an eye on the big picture at all times, Haverford and Whitman students, as well as thousands of others around the country, are learning about and practicing engaged citizenship. Liu reminds us:

A liberal arts education has its roots, etymologically and otherwise, in the requirements of liberty: what it takes to be a self-governing citizen rather than a slave. To be a citizen of a country like the United States you should be literate in the humanities as well as the sciences, in the arts as well as accounting. Illiteracy is risky.

We know that one day our students will themselves become governors and other elected officials who are in positions to support this kind of education in order to promote a robust and diverse democracy, and in those moments we are confident they will bring their critical thinking and creative problem solving to bear on those decisions.