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Op-ed: Liberal arts education lays groundwork for lifetime learning

First Published      Last Updated Apr 29 2016 09:25 pm

What do you want to be when you grow up? When I ask my grandson this question, I get answers like firefighter, scientist or professional soccer player. I wanted to be a doctor. I ended up an accountant, fundraiser and then college president.

The "What do you want to be?" question often weighs heavily on high school seniors this time of year as they choose a university and feel pressure to pick a major and career.

After 35 years at Westminster College, I've seen that students' futures rarely rest on which major they choose. What counts is the pursuit of an education that prepares students for life's ups and downs and the many careers they will experience.




I believe a liberal arts education is the key to that life-long preparation because it increases our capacity to understand the world, contribute to it and reshape ourselves far beyond our years at a college. As late Dartmouth President James Freedman once noted, "Liberal education provides perspective, enabling us to see life steadily and to see it whole."

Studying the liberal arts has nothing to do with being liberal or conservative, nor is it the opposite of — or separate from — studying science, technology, engineering, math (STEM), business or education. Exploring the liberal arts is less about what students study and more about learning how to become an engaged and productive citizen who continues to learn.

Academically, this means combining areas of knowledge, not simply memorizing names, dates and formulae. It means developing a complex understanding of whole systems and interrelated ideas. It is understanding both what you know and what you don't because, as Kathryn Schulz observes in her delightful book, "Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error," learning our limitations as human beings is an exciting adventure. It means being able to identify what one needs to solve problems and being able to persuasively communicate what one has learned both orally and in writing.

At Westminster, faculty developed WCore, an exciting program of interdisciplinary courses for all undergraduates that enables students to explore the bases of culture and knowledge in diverse fields from the physical sciences to philosophy to the fine arts. In all majors — in addition to expecting theoretical and historical expertise — we expect students to make connections to other fields of knowledge and engage their communities by applying their learning in practical service to others. For example, before heading off this fall to attend graduate school in public health, one of our honors students developed a database to help local law enforcement crack down on human trafficking.

The importance of being able to make meaningful connections through active learning is impossible to overstate. The world of work our students enter will be changing often and dramatically. According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and The Future Workplace, workers stay in the same position for fewer than five years — millennials less than three. Our graduates might hold as many as 15–20 different jobs in their lifetimes.

For those of us in higher education, this is a call to action.

Students need to be ready for anything, including what they do not now know. I believe that is what an education at a liberal arts college provides.

I often tell students that they shouldn't obsess over the choice of a major but ought to concentrate instead on understanding what they are learning in broad contexts and learning how to learn. If Westminster graduates receiving degrees this weekend at commencement were asked what they would like to be when they grow up, I would hope they would say "lifelong learners."

Stephen Morgan is president of Westminster College.

 

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