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A Vote for Liberal Arts Education

The Intellectual vitality needed for study in the liberal arts develops students who are empathic, deeply searching, enlightened, endlessly creative, and confident in their ability to lead. Liberal arts students have debated, analyzed, and, sometimes, even concurred with writers, thinkers, and leaders from so many fields of study, that they somehow feel emboldened enough to handle a conversation with just about anyone, and have practiced their critical thinking skills among enough people to feel giddily capable of possibly leading them—somewhere. Liberal arts students have studied the archetypes of leadership—from those with quirks and genius, to those with defining, salt-of-the-earth insights. They have been taught to explore with abandon, and turn people, their writings, and theories on their heads.

What are students hoping to find in the liberal arts, during their dive into deep structure? Surprisingly, in a society so hell-bent on answers, the humanities and social science intellect is searching for better questions. “It’s the questions you ask that show the strongest intellect,” remarked Dr. Jeffrey Tigay, my favorite professor from college. I agree, Dr. Tigay, and would take it one step further. It’s the questions you ask that can pivot innovation and societal intentions. One of the finest professors with whom I’ve ever had the privilege of studying, and later, assisting, Dr. Tigay was a great forager and “archaeologist” of ancient literature. He wasn’t the kind of archaeologist who worked in the soil and looked for strata—he was the kind who dug into ancient texts and turned them inside out to find clues about civilization, love, loss, psychology, fears, dreams, and the bulwarks and emotional attachments of a people. In class, we searched for clues to what makes a piece of literature a classic, what makes a human being believe in God, what makes a people create gods—big and small—in life, career, classroom—and what messaging, at its elemental level, shows us about society, education, and what’s valued for future generations.

Ultimately, all that digging brings about some very heady questions, and how we answer them, will not only be in the hands of students trained in clearing floating divs and typing complex code. It is the liberal arts educated student who will understand how we can use the past—its literature, its weaknesses, its awakenings, its military motives, and teleological tensions to inform and create a more pro-active and profound present. By studying these questions the liberal arts teaches us its own form of courage, and prepares students to lead in thoughtful ways. Crossing the Humanities/Stem barrier is its own reward. Are the questions of a liberal arts education those that everyone needs to study? Perhaps not. But friends, if we’re force-feeding differential equations and Javascript to our humanities and social science students and, simultaneously sending messaging that pushes them into the business of technology, for fear of becoming irrelevant or poverty-stricken, we certainly had better be sure that our STEM students know enough to trust those liberal arts minds to lead along with them.

Truly, if we train and insist on fashioning every young mind into a STEM-master, are we not creating an admissions complexion in which every college applicant is dispensable because he or she looks the same on paper—the whole lot of applicants might just arrive at the admissions office on an assembly-line—speaking the same language, caring about the same details, trained in the same agenda, pushing for the same professions, possessing the same carefully honed and wired skills. Of course there will always be difference in intellect, in natural ability, and in leadership qualities within STEM fields; but without the complicated, passionate, and analytical outlooks that emerge from a culturally, literarily, and artistically diverse group of minds studying arts, language, literature, politics, human nature, and history together in a classroom, we will watch as a society of leaders, innovators, daydreamers, imaginers and confident movers shrivels into one of technical facility, pabulum, and commonplace production.

And yes, the previous run-on sentence is brought to you by poetic license—a gift from my liberal-artsy love of words.

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