From classrooms to corner offices to national media, more and more discussion is centering on the value of a liberal arts education.
The New York Times recently devoted its Sunday Dialogue to the topic, “Studying the Humanities.” The interchange prompted the following response from Gettysburg College President Janet Morgan Riggs ’77. Use the comments section to add to the discussion.
Forty years ago I never would have imagined that my dual psychology and mathematics degrees would have “prepared” me for my current position as a college president. Even ten years ago I would not have anticipated where my career path might take me. Yet, here I am — the CEO of a college in south central Pennsylvania, responsible for a $110 million budget, 750 employees, and 2,600 students. I became president just about the time the United States and European economies were unraveling. Was I prepared for the daily nuances that go into managing an institution, reporting to a board of trustees, and answering to our shareholders — current students, parents, and alumni? You bet I was. And that’s because I have been able to rely on the skills I learned as an undergraduate at a liberal arts college 40 years ago — thinking critically, communicating effectively, analyzing data and information, anticipating problems, and arriving at solutions to manage in this uncertain world. The complex problems we face as a society today make a liberal arts preparation more important now than ever before.
A liberal arts education is one of the most expensive forms of higher education because the delivery is personal, because it provides a comprehensive and formative residential learning experience, and because it prepares students for leading roles in both their professional and civic lives. That is why countries in Asia and the Middle East are beginning to ask us about how to establish their own liberal arts colleges. Due to the enormous investment made by many colleges in financial aid, the debt load of liberal arts college graduates typically does not reach the Everest proportions to which Times reporter Frank Bruni alludes in his April 29 OpEd, despite some wild headlines. Professor Cheryl Greenberg hits the mark in her argument for liberal arts colleges in her May 2 letter; Frank Bruni misses it. We should be asking how we can make a liberal arts experience (philosophy and anthropology included) available to more students, not fewer. Our collective future may well depend on the liberal arts skills that today’s students and tomorrow’s leaders develop.