Pres. Riggs authors op-ed on liberal arts education and why it still matters

President Janet Morgan Riggs '77 authored an editorial that appeared in The Patriot News (Harrisburg, Pa.) Aug. 30 on the relevance of a liberal arts education and why it matters more in this turbulent economy and job market.

Riggs wrote, "The point is that it is not so much the specific content of our courses that is at the core of the liberal arts experience, rather the value is in a way of learning."

The full piece appears below and is available at PennLive.com.

 

How will studying Shakespeare or cell biology or modern art help me get a job?

It's a question I hear more often these days. As the new president of a liberal arts college taking the helm during the economy's most dramatic tailspin since the Great Depression, I understand why many prospective students and their families want to be sure they understand the value of a liberal arts education.

The most straightforward answer is liberal arts colleges, at their best, provide an exceptionally effective learning environment for developing the kind of intellectual power and propensity for action that the world needs to tackle the daunting challenges we face.

A critical reading of the great works of Western and nonwestern traditions -- yes, even Shakespeare -- can help clarify our own ideas and values and better understand the perspectives of others.

Studying science provides practice in testing hypotheses and analyzing data.

Studying the arts nurtures an appreciation for the richness and endless diversity of human imagination.

The point is that it is not so much the specific content of our courses that is at the core of the liberal arts experience, rather the value is in a way of learning.

We ask students to digest and comprehend huge quantities of data, evaluate sources, communicate findings, analyze and synthesize ideas and draw and defend conclusions.

Although our culture tends to encourage students to narrow their focus and become skilled specialists in areas that they think will have immediate value in the job market, many CEOs are looking for employees with the attributes that a liberal arts education instills: critical thinking, clear communication, collaboration, an appreciation for diverse points of view, the ability to approach a problem from multiple perspectives, ethical judgment and lifelong learning skills.

These habits of mind have enduring value at a time when labor specialists tell us that 70 percent of the jobs that will be in demand in the next few decades do not even exist now.

The leaders of the future are more likely to be confident and flexible generalists who can help us clarify problems, imagine creative solutions, build a community of support and continue to learn new skills -- than those who have mastered a highly specialized skill.

Of course we have an obligation to help our students find a way to translate what they have learned into a potential career direction. Career service departments have become increasingly sophisticated in helping students identify potential matches between their skills and their interests. Internships, job-shadowing experiences and networking opportunities help students bridge the transition between school and work. These activities don't compromise the core liberal arts experience; they enhance its value.

In fact, liberal arts colleges are leaders in providing opportunities for students to experience life beyond the boundaries of campus. During this last spring break, for example, Gettysburg College students explored middle school education in urban Baltimore, honed their leadership skills in Arizona's rugged Dragoon Mountains and learned firsthand about life in Leon, Nicaragua.

Many Gettysburg students spend a semester or more abroad in a cultural context different from their own. These kinds of experiences cultivate the humility, openmindedness, dedication to dialogue and respect for multiple perspectives that support meaningful engagement with the world and enhance our graduates' ability to have an impact on their professions and on their communities.

During economic crises, the temptation to look for an immediate return on an educational investment is strong, but shortsighted.

We, at liberal arts colleges, believe future leaders in education, science, law, business, medicine and public service will be those who will think clearly and creatively, challenge conventional thinking, understand the global context and feel a responsibility to use their education for the greater good. This is the essential value of the liberal arts.

Janet Morgan Riggs is president of Gettysburg College and a professor of psychology.

By: Kendra Martin, director of media relations, 717.337.6801

 

Posted: Mon, 31 Aug 2009

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