Liberal arts education is smart move in today’s world

Originally posted: August 28, 2011

As president of Gettysburg College I’ve often talked and written about the value of a liberal arts education. I understand that in today’s economic climate, the thought of spending money for an education not specific to a particular job leaves some scratching their heads.

To that concern I respond that a liberal arts education has never been more valuable as the problems we face have grown more complex, as our world has become increasingly connected and as the pace of change has accelerated.

The term liberal arts can be misleading to those unfamiliar with the phrase. Some might wonder whether liberal arts colleges only teach the arts or teach liberal political views. However, the use of the word liberal in this context refers to a broad education that is intellectually liberating, one that teaches analytical thinking from multiple perspectives and creativity in problem-solving.

That breadth of approach includes not only the arts, but also the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities. A liberal arts education teaches students how to think critically, communicate effectively, analyze information and solve problems.
Today’s graduates will hold not just several jobs, but several careers over their lifetimes. In fact, many will enter careers that do not currently exist. That suggests that training for a specific job might not provide the flexibility that today’s graduates need. Learning how to learn – learning general skills that translate from one career to another – enables the flexibility that is required in today’s fast-moving world.

Of course, a college education also opens surprising doors. When Michael Bishop entered Gettysburg College in 1953, he thought he might major in history. Instead he became a scientist, winner of the Nobel Prize in medicine, and chancellor of the University of California at San Francisco, home of one of the top five medical schools and health centers in the country.

Bishop is a classic example of a liberal arts college student who enters college imagining one future and leaves prepared for another. The college experience often unlocks possibilities for graduates that have great benefit for the individual and for society.
To support and complement a strong academic experience, most liberal arts colleges offer a rich array of opportunities designed to prepare graduates for lives of responsible citizenship.

At Gettysburg, we focus on preparation of leaders for a fast-changing world. That means leadership in one’s profession and in one’s community — and that requires more than the intellectual preparation to approach complex issues.

Leadership also means that our graduates must feel a sense of responsibility for taking the action necessary to solve difficult problems. They must be prepared and inclined to take effective action in service of the greater good.

That inclination is developed through public service and leadership programs, through the opportunity to live in a vibrant community and interact with individuals from a wide variety of backgrounds and through the development of a world-view that goes far beyond one’s hometown.

At Gettysburg, we are proud to be among the top producers of Peace Corps volunteers and Fulbright scholarship winners in the country. Our students are prepared and inspired to work in locations worldwide to provide assistance and promote positive social change.

Perhaps it is no surprise that other nations have begun to establish institutions modeled after American liberal arts colleges. In recent years, China and the United Arab Emirates have expanded educational opportunities for their students in the liberal arts. They see the value of encouraging personal development along with intellectual development, of providing a broad-based approach that inspires intellectual curiosity and life-long learning.

For individuals, a college education is a tremendous investment that will return dividends in personal and intellectual development, in income, in job choice and in professional flexibility.

For our society, a college education is an investment that will return dividends in the solution of complex problems, in the understanding of and appreciation for diverse cultural perspectives, and in effective local and global leadership.

This is the time of year when students begin to arrive on our nation’s college campuses for a new academic year. It’s a time of renewal. It’s a time of hopes and dreams. And it’s a time to prepare for the future.

JANET MORGAN RIGGS is president of Gettysburg College.

CollegeNews Story Archive

CollegeNews is now Liberal Arts Success

CollegeNews has brought you the latest information from over 125 liberal arts colleges for over ten years. Now it’s transforming into something even greater. Visit liberalartssuccess.org and learn more about the impact of liberal arts education on the individual and on society.

Visit the Liberal Arts Success website »

Search CollegeNews