Editorial Board: Colleges cannot overlook the liberal arts

Earlier this month, the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point announced a plan to resolve budget issues by reallocating resources to fund more lucrative academic programs. As a result of this restructuring, the university would cut 13 liberal arts majors — notably, English, political science and history — in favor of disciplines that traditionally receive  higher demands for employment, particularly in the realms of business and engineering.

Shideh Ghandeharizadeh | Daily Trojan

Considering the essential nature of basic subjects like English to one’s education, it comes as a surprise that an institution dedicated to higher learning would drop so many liberal arts programs with such resolve. And yet, the message behind this decision is one students have been hearing a lot lately: In such a competitive job market, there is simply no place for the liberal arts. This mindset is, undoubtedly, short-sighted — and it is one that colleges must work to eliminate if they truly want to foster a holistic education for their students.

These cuts come at a time of disagreement concerning what type of education will best meet the needs of our evolving society. While colleges commonly stress idealistic notions like “searching for the truth,” many conservatives reject such messages because they foster the formation of liberal, impractical viewpoints. In 2015, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker unsuccessfully attempted to alter the fundamental code of the state’s university system by changing the wording of philosophies like “improve the human condition” to “meet the state’s workforce needs.”

And yet, now more than ever, liberal arts majors are not just useful, but also necessary. In a bustling workforce where the “next big thing” in technology alters the fabrics of companies year after year, employers need graduates who are willing to learn on the job. As products of an interdisciplinary education that prioritizes the ability to think critically, students of the liberal arts are trained to apply the crucial skill of adaptability to their work. In other words, they are not taught what to think, but how to think.

Job prospects aside, one must also consider how a focus in the liberal arts can impact the quality of their educational experience. When students — especially those attending highly selective colleges — are taught to be multi-faceted learners throughout elementary, middle and high school, it is illogical to assume that freshmen have found their callings the moment they step through the doors of a university.

The liberal arts provide students with opportunities to explore disciplines they haven’t previously considered, and to consider viewpoints to which they haven’t  yet been exposed — opportunities that evidently pay off in the long run. Regarding a 2016 study about the undergraduate experiences of 1,000 alumni, Inside Higher Ed reports that a general, liberal arts education directly aligns with a greater sense of satisfaction with graduates’ professional and personal lives. Among other benefits, liberal arts graduates were more likely to demonstrate leadership characteristics later in life.

With regard to USC, the University does a better job than most at instilling undergraduates with a diverse educational background. As most students know, USC requires that all bachelor’s degree candidates complete eight courses in the six core literacies: the arts, life sciences, physical sciences, humanistic inquiry and social analysis. And yet, the partiality toward pre-professional schools is still undeniably apparent. At USC, specialized colleges like the Marshall School of Business, the Viterbi School of Engineering and the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism receive substantially more special attention and funding than the Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, where students attend classes in older — or, as the University puts it, “historic” — buildings with fewer resources.

Moreover, one must consider the fact that whereas the aforementioned trade schools accommodate a relatively small number of majors with highly specialized advisers, Dornsife encompasses just about everything else. Considering that the college contains 140 different majors and minors, a Dornsife student can study economics, African American studies or biophysics. And while this variety affords students with the opportunity to switch majors or double major with relative ease, the immensity of the college paired with a failure to consolidate resources may leave many students overlooked.

In response to increasing disregard for the liberal arts, many colleges should follow the example set by universities like USC and implement a multi-disciplinary general education program that both exposes students to diverse material and helps prepare them for the workforce. Additionally, while many do not have the financial resources to do so, some universities would benefit from looking into creating smaller, more individualized schools for the liberal arts. Yale University, for example, provides such a system in which departments of disciplines like English and history are allowed to thrive.

In its entirety, the shift of focus from the liberal arts to trade schools represents a valid concern for the future of the workforce — but universities such as those in Wisconsin are approaching the issue from the wrong perspective. While pre-professional schools surely enable many students to seamlessly enter the workforce after college, by no means does that justify the elimination of the invaluable educational experience provided by liberal arts curricula. If the goal of a university education truly is to “search for the truth” or “understand the human condition,” then students should be taught not just how to navigate a single trade, but also how to navigate a changing world.

Daily Trojan spring 2018 Editorial Board