In a UND geography class long ago, I learned to distinguish cumulus clouds from cirrus. In biology, I fought through the nauseating scent of formaldehyde to locate vital parts of a fetal pig. My career goal from the start was journalism, but two history professors ignited an obsession with the tragedy of World War I.
In a music appreciation class, I lay on the carpeted classroom floor with other students, closed my eyes and tried to open my mind as we listened to works by Arnold Schoenberg and John Cage. I “appreciated” the genius of those composers, but I confess I’ve spent very little time with them in the 50 years since, preferring the lyrical intricacies of Bach, the heroics of Chopin and the romance of Grieg.
None of that exposure to the “liberal arts” could be shown empirically to have increased my employability or the size of my paychecks once I entered the workforce. But I have no doubt that the liberal arts prepared me for a more satisfying, more productive life.
And when I briefly had a role in hiring people, I looked for evidence that these would be people I enjoyed having around – not just because they could do the work but because they were alive, aware, interesting. They read books. They could locate Iraq on a map and recite lines from Robert Frost or Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
I’ve been following the visits to UND of the five men and one woman who would be the next president of my university, and my primary interest has been how they responded to questions concerning the university’s purpose. Should or can the university be more than a trade school? Does a well-rounded education still matter?
The candidates tend to respond cautiously, in the cautious language of the academy. It’s important, one said, to provide students with the skills they’ll need to land their first jobs, but a broader education is needed to “fulfill an impactful life.”
For six years, I’ve been teaching students in the Communications Department, successor to the Journalism Department of my college years. The students generally are bright and hungry. And while few have any interest in newspaper work, most seem to accept my opening premise that an ability to write a sentence with clarity, depth and grace will serve them no matter what field they enter.
But many of them say they don’t have time to read a novel, attend a play, study the sky or grapple with the ideas of old philosophers. Their major requirements are too demanding, their finances too shaky.
Brad Rundquist, dean of UND’s College of Arts and Sciences, understands all that. Yes, the purpose of the university is to serve the state, he says, and to provide future employees with job skills – but among those vital skills are critical thinking, adaptability, an awareness of the world, the ability to communicate and the ability “to work with teams of people who have diverse perspectives on problems.”
Some majors at UND “are pretty packed, and there’s not much room for exploration” beyond the major, Rundquist said. But most disciplines do allow for “spaces to explore,” and he notes that the first goal in UND’s strategic plan is to “provide a strong undergraduate liberal arts foundation.”
The university could do more to communicate the value of academic exploration, he said. “Students today are focused on their career goals. They don’t see that taking a breadth of courses will help in those careers. And with the debt crisis, their focus is on getting done quickly with as little debt as possible. But we know a broader education is an investment. There will be a payoff.”
Richard Greenwald, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Fairfield University in Connecticut, wrote about the challenge last December in The Daily Beast. “The reality is we need the social and critical communication skills that are best honed in the liberal arts,” he wrote, noting that more than a decade ago, the National Academy of Engineering underscored the value of the liberal arts. “New graduates were technically well prepared but lacked the professional skills for success in a competitive, innovative, global marketplace. Employers complained that new hires had poor communication and teamwork skills and did not appreciate the social and nontechnical influences on engineering solutions and quality processes.”
So go ahead, young man, young woman, and sign up for that 19th century English literature course. Do it to be a better accountant, a better entrepreneur, a better engineer … a better, more interesting coworker, a better (and likely more employable) person.
Chuck Haga had a long career at the Herald and the Minneapolis Star Tribune before retiring in 2013. He now writes for the Sunday edition of the Herald. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.