In Defense of a Liberal Arts Education

May 7th, 2013 | By | Category: Opinion, The Inquisitive Academic, Web Exclusive
By Ryan Winn

In today’s political climate, the only task seemingly more daunting than that of a college justifying education funding, is that of a professor defending the value of a liberal arts degree. Numerous job-tracking sites advise that the students of 2013 should spend their ever-shrinking grant dollars on degrees in medicine or in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). The problem for liberal arts disciplines is that these resources make little note of the value of our fields. For those of us who’ve dedicated our lives to educating students about the importance of knowing and preserving art, history, literature, culture, and the social sciences, this is disconcerting, because these trends fail to illuminate the wealth our graduates contribute to employers.

The truth of the matter is that liberal arts graduates are able to think and write analytically, scrutinize complex issues efficiently, and communicate their conclusions effectively. Which, of course, are the skills sought in almost every job posting. This doesn’t mean our graduates will all obtain the same job and thereby land on the list of most employable professions, but rather that their liberal arts education prepares them for the multitude of careers that they might pursue.

The good news is that most tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) have mission statements that include a commitment to educating students about the value of Native cultures. Tribal colleges strive to incorporate culturally infused learning by indigenizing their curricula—and that effort is often led by liberal arts faculty. The proof of our dedication can be seen by flipping through the array of liberal arts courses listed in most TCU academic catalogs.

In the introduction to his anthology, Ancient Wisdom, Modern Science, editor Paul Boyer, Ph.D., admits that attempts to “Indianize” curricula at TCUs have most often succeeded in the humanities and social sciences. Boyer goes on to state that many STEM instructors initially didn’t know how to incorporate culture into their courses which “seemed to be inherently ‘non-Indian’ disciplines,” and that the instructors who did achieve success did so through experimentation in their courses and by drawing inspiration from the writings of the late Vine Deloria Jr. (Standing Rock Sioux). Deloria’s texts are often required reading in liberal arts courses, and it appears the key to successful integration of culture into curriculum comes from liberal arts pedagogy. With this in mind, we can and should make the argument that TCUs need liberal arts courses to fulfill their missions.

One has to look a little harder for the proof, but some unexpected institutions are also realizing the value of a liberal arts education. In her article for USA Today this past April, Mary Beth Marklein writes that despite the pessimism over the employability of a liberal arts degree, “more than 35 business schools last month met to talk about how to incorporate the liberal arts into their courses.” The article quotes Judith Samuelson, of the non-profit Aspen Institute’s Business and Society program, who notes there’s a “sense that business education has become too narrow and isn’t preparing graduates adequately — for career success, certainly — but also more broadly for lives as engaged citizens.” What’s gratifying is that these conclusions are just the tip of the iceberg.

Forbes columnist Vivek Ranadivé, who has degrees in engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an MBA from Harvard, believes that a liberal arts education can actually mean greater job security for our graduates. Ranadivé argues that computers will continue to replace skilled workers and that any job which can be outsourced overseas for greater profits soon will be. So what jobs will be left in America? Ranadivé speculates that “the people who will succeed in more expensive labor markets like the U.S. will be those who can think creatively and generate the ideas that will propel economic growth. Such skills are best fostered in a traditional liberal arts environment.”

Although it is certainly vindicating to realize that the paradigm shift over what constitutes a viable degree is on the horizon, perhaps the most compelling reason for faculty at TCUs to encourage study in the liberal arts lies in the reality of the seven generations model. Most of the data collected and used to advise students focuses on the immediate needs of the workforce, but what about the world we will leave for our grandchildren? Steve Yoder of The Fiscal Times asks, “without a strong background in history, philosophy and literature, how can this generation lead the next? Will these students understand how to govern a nation?”

I would be remiss if I concluded this column without stating my belief that it will also be TCUs’ liberal arts graduates who will help ensure that tribal languages and cultures will survive beyond these times. Every day, liberal arts faculty at TCUs encourage the active preservation and precipitation of indigenous knowledge. That commitment in and of itself is invaluable to the communities we serve.

It’s staggering to think how much the liberal arts contribute to the success and social wealth of our society, and it’s virtually inconceivable that liberal arts faculty members have to defend their disciplines. Yet, the reality is that we have to do just that. Luckily, our own education has equipped us all with the skills to win this battle over public misconceptions. And that’s just one more reason to be thankful for our own liberal arts degrees.

Ryan Winn teaches English, theater, and communications at College of Menominee Nation (CMN), where he also serves as the Humanities Department chair. In the past seven years he has presented several papers, chaired a few panels, and directed and/or acted in stage readings at both national and regional conferences on the topic of American Indian theater. Similarly, he has directed 11 plays for CMN, coached their AIHEC speech team, and has been recognized as the American Indian College Fund Faculty Member of the Year.

Works Cited

Boyer, P. (Ed.). (2010). Ancient wisdom, modern science. Pablo, MT: Salish Kootenai College Press.

Marklein, M. B. (2013, April 6). What is a B.A. in English worth anymore? USA TODAY. Retrieved from http://www.usatoday.com/.

Ranadivé, V. (2012, November 13). A liberal arts degree is more valuable than learning any trade. Forbes. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/.

Yoder, S. (2013, January 19). Students are fleeing liberal arts – how it could hurt the U.S. The Fiscal Times. Retrieved from http://www.thefiscaltimes.com/.

 

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