FORREST ROBINETTE ’16
Liberal arts schools emphasize critical-thinking and intellectual curiosity. The goal of such institutions is to instill a sense of civic responsibility in its students and to create informed citizens who think of learning as a life-long process. This is quite a grand definition. Trinity being a liberal arts school, I am always considering what the value of such an education is in our society today?
First of all, a liberal arts education is meant to endow a person with flexibility and an ability to adapt to new challenges. Specialization in a particular field is forgone in a liberal arts education for a more broad approach to learning. Schools like Trinity work to give students a set of skills that can be applied to a variety of professions. The ability to adapt seems particularly important in today’s ever-changing society. The average person in our generation will change their career path several times and will hold no less than eight completely different jobs. These facts definitely show that the days of specialization are gone. I’ve heard it said that many of the jobs our generation will be working have not been invented yet. With so much uncertainty in our futures, now more than ever, a flexible set of work skills seems like a great asset to have.
Howard and Mathew Greene wrote an education guide called the “Hidden Ivies: Thirty Colleges of Excellence.” Trinity is listed among these “colleges of excellence” along with other NESCAC schools, schools in the South such as Wake Forest and Washington and Lee, schools in the Midwest such as Grinnell and Carlton College, and more. The Greene brothers wrote an extensive definition of what they considered to be the definition of a liberal arts education and what they thought the strengths of such an education are. He writes, “In a complex, shifting world, it is essential to develop a high degree of intellectual literacy and critical-thinking skills.” For the Greene brothers though, liberal arts extend beyond one’s mental skills. They say that students at liberal arts school develop “a sense of moral and ethical responsibility to one’s community,” the ability to “respond to people in a compassionate and fair way,” and to “continue learning new information and concepts over a lifetime.” This is a big promise for a single type of college. I’m not sure these goals are lived up to all the time at every liberal arts school, but I think that it is still good to keep such goals in mind.
The Greene brothers move into an even more philosophical and romantic vision saying that liberal arts students learn to “appreciate and gain pleasure from the beauty of the arts and literature and to use these as an inspiration and a solace when needed.” This is a beautiful thought. I was attracted to the liberal arts education because the advocates of this kind of college see learning as a process to be enjoyed rather than endured. Many of my friends who are attending different colleges across the nation say how they are only there for the degree. Isn’t that a grim notion, that one’s entire college experience might just be a means to an end? A liberal arts education emphasizes the journey rather than the destination, by seeing learning as an ongoing and valuable part of life.
I also enjoy the sense of civic duty in the Greene’s definition. I think in our society today we too often underestimate the value of an informed and intelligent population. In a democracy, a civically conscious and independent-thinking electorate is crucial for the system to function well. I know we definitely see how often the American population fails to live up to this standard in elections today. There are countless people who vote on a candidate simply because they are listed as Republican or Democrat, which is a travesty and surely contributes to the harsh party lines that Congress is eternally mired in. People vote for candidates without knowing who they are or what they stand for. An acquaintance of mine said he was just going to vote for whomever his dad voted for. I can’t say that liberal arts students are more likely to be informed voters, but I think that should be a goal of our education system all the same.
Education is often reduced to the all-powerful objective of “getting the job.” Don’t get me wrong, education should exist primarily to help us become contributing workers in our society, but it should also instill us with some civic responsibility. The best ideals of education are often sacrificed in the pursuit of practicality. In today’s brutal economy, this practicality is understandable, but it should not prevent students from approaching learning as something to be enjoyed rather than a means to an end and only as a means to a job.
In recent years, companies and employers everywhere have been shifting away from hiring specialized employees and shifted towards hiring students from liberal arts schools. A friend of mine recently had an interview with Liberty Mutual Insurance Company and her interviewer said that they were starting to hire students from liberal arts schools because they wanted employees “who could think.”