The liberal arts—from value to meaning

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It might seem at times all the words have already been written about liberal education. I hope you’ll see that’s not true as you find something new in this issue. Why does the ideal of the liberal arts stay alive? Because in the real world, every fall our campus life (and my life) are transformed with the return of our idealistic, inquisitive students. They come to Redlands from all walks of life and all over the state, country and globe for a very simple reason—to pursue a liberal arts and sciences education. Some have very clear ideas about what they intend to do with their education, while many others are much less certain. Part of what makes the undergraduate educational experience at a liberal arts university unique is the freedom to explore an abundantly diverse array of offerings. In doing so, students come to challenge their assumptions, discover new passions, learn lifelong skills and embrace new ideas. Moreover, in a close-knit residential experience they have a chance to develop (or not) the moral character that will distinguish their lives. Many will declare a major, a double major or minor in a subject to which they might have given little thought (or didn’t even know existed) in high school. This is what broad, liberal education does best—it surprises us, encourages us to make connections, expands our worldviews and develops unexpected talents.

I am often asked, “What is the value of a liberal arts education?” I suspect it is the most commonly asked question of liberal arts university presidents today. I have written and spoken publicly in support of liberal education many, many times over the years. As president, it is my responsibility to champion not only our university but to advocate for the broader enterprise of liberal education. I actually relish debunking myths surrounding the liberal arts, partly because I get to share the success of our students and graduates as evidence—they make my job easier in this respect—and partly because I am convinced that a liberal arts education provides the strongest foundation for life.

As Thomas Jefferson once said of his own beloved institution, the University of Virginia, liberal education does not aim to prepare students for “the particular vocations to which they are destined.” The same can be said for the University of Redlands. For 108 years, we have provided students with a multiplicity of choices and asked them to create their own destinies. With over 40 programs of study and more than 600 courses offered annually in the College of Arts and Sciences alone, not to mention the numerous graduate and professional courses available in the Schools of Education and Business, our students are nearly spoiled for choice. Still, many students worry about which major will best set them up for post-college success. And who can blame them? In light of the current public discourse, their anxiety is understandable.

In recent years, politicians and high-profile commentators in the media have questioned the usefulness of a college degree, with particular scrutiny on the program of study. In their minds, the baccalaureate is commoditized. Every year we read about “the worst college majors” or “the lowest paying bachelor’s degrees,” but the attention focused on the undergraduate major is misguided. We know that the most highly selective professional schools intentionally choose students from a wide range of majors, and that many of our own graduates with science and humanities degrees have gone on to rewarding careers in fields they did not specialize in at the undergraduate level. According to a report from the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U), 93% of employers say that a college graduate’s abilities to communicate clearly, think critically and solve complex problems are far more important than the specificity of a major. When we look at the data, we learn that the lifetime dollar “value” of a liberal arts degree is greater than its short-term value. According to an AAC&U report, liberal arts and sciences graduates not only close the salary gap over time, but on average earn more than those who studied in professional and pre-professional fields. But surely, money is not value. I claim the true values that most define liberal education outcomes are the building of moral character and one’s increased ability to make flexible changes later in life.

The federal government’s new College Scorecard now attempts to “score” universities and colleges based on the average salary graduates earn, average student debt, completion rate and tuition. This online tool seeks to answer the question of “value” in a way that most university presidents would find unsatisfactory—with raw numbers, little context and avoiding the importance of learning and transforming lives. When I talk about the value of a liberal education, I point to both anecdotal evidence and palpable data, but I also know that some of its greatest virtues are impossible to quantify. This is undoubtedly why the debate in public discourse continues, and it is also why universities like Redlands need to share our liberal arts success stories.

I hope we can change the nature of our conversations from one of value to one of meaning. To me, the liberal arts have meant a lifetime of transformative learning—from the sciences to medicine to music to higher education leadership, my learning never ends. As you read our latest issue, I hope you will reflect on your own experiences, whether at Redlands or elsewhere, and consider what a liberal education means to you: How do you define it? How has it defined you? I suspect your own answers might surprise you.

With warmest regards,
Ralph W. Kuncl, PhD MD
President
University of Redlands

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