Introduction to ‘The Value of a Liberal Arts Education’

The following article was obviously written for people who haven’t yet decided on a college or a major, but I think you can still get some benefit from it. You have made the decision to come to Ashland University, which fits the article’s definition of a “small liberal arts¹ college” (small class sizes, close access to professors and undergraduate research opportunities, and a broad-based academic program), but in most cases you have already declared a major—months before your first class session—which means that your experience will be very similar to the experience of a student in a trade school: for the first three or four semesters almost every one of your courses is tightly focused on the specifics of working at your future job (financial accounting, microeconomics, or physiology of exercise, for example). By contrast, beginning freshmen at the liberal arts colleges take a wide variety of courses. (One of the colleges mentioned in the article, Bowdoin, requires all freshmen to complete a first year writing seminar and take courses in mathematical, computational, or statistical reasoning; inquiry in the natural sciences; difference, power, and inequity; international perspectives; and visual and performing arts. They do not declare a major until the end of their third semester.)

The reason I assigned this article and asked you to respond to it is that many of my students experience a severe case of burnout in their second semester (and some as early as November!), and I believe that a primary cause is that they discover their declared major isn’t a good fit. They cannot imagine slogging through this material for three more years and the prospect of a lifetime job doing this sort of thing is overwhelming. One strategy that would really help these students is to take a more liberal arts approach to selecting courses (with the approval of the academic advisor). Try out a history course or a philosophy course. Make room for a literature course or a course in one of the sciences. You might discover a side of yourself you never knew about.

  1. “Liberal Arts” here refers to an older definition of “liberal arts” (college or university studies such as language, philosophy, literature, abstract science intended to provide chiefly general knowledge and to develop general intellectual capacities such as reason and judgment). It is not a political term: it does not refer to the college’s attitude toward Donald Trump, Joe Biden, the Republican Party or the Democratic Party.