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Loving the liberal arts: Why a broad knowledge base is more important than ever

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By Alan Cordova
Current Magazine

Summer 2006 issue - We need the liberal arts—now more than ever. While studying Márquez, Mozart, and Picasso might seem irrelevant to would-be MDs or MBAs, exposure to a wide range of ideas and disciplines provides an unparalleled foundation for addressing the challenges of the 21st century. In a world where career changes are frequent and creative thinking is crucial, the flexibility and resourcefulness that remain the hallmarks of a liberal arts education are essential.

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Liberal arts institutions emphasize breadth of learning and have long allowed students to experiment with different fields of study. Their graduates pick up diverse skills over their four years on campus that give them a competitive advantage in many occupations. Who’s to say that Carl Ichan’s corporate raiding strategy doesn’t find some basis in his philosophical roots at Princeton? Or that John Lithgow’s performance in “Terms of Endearment” wasn’t informed by his History and Literature training at Harvard?

Rather than scheduling their entire undergraduate careers from the start, liberal arts underclassmen are free to broaden their knowledge base. It’s at this point that Economics majors can learn Arabic and linguists can get their heads around budgets. Moreover, because most of the courses are open to everyone, all students can benefit from this academic cross-pollination.

Today’s liberal arts experience is more than a set of classes; the learning environment plays a significant part in undergraduate life. This is particularly true at small colleges. Students’ close interaction with faculty, a liberal arts trademark, creates unique opportunities for intellectual mentorship.

This environment also produces highly competitive grad school applicants, and not just in Medieval French History. Classes that critics dismiss as unnecessary, such as literature or sociology, help students address situations that call for creativity, empathy, and judgment. Today, graduate programs look for more than MCAT, LSAT, or GMAT scores—they want their doctors and lawyers to have broad problem-solving experience. With admissions more competitive than ever, this perspective can be the factor that sets the liberal arts applicant apart.

The benefits of a liberal arts background also yield hidden rewards in later life. A common story at Williams tells of an art history graduate who excelled in dentistry because analyzing paintings had taught him how to look for details. Liberal arts gives students the tools to access whatever comes their way.  The training in analytical and creative thinking teaches graduates to be versatile in their craft while retaining a cosmopolitan attitude outside the workplace.

Although the liberal arts have been around for centuries, they are more important now than ever. Only their graduates possess the range of educational experience that is increasingly valuable in an uncertain job market. A pre-professional graduate faces a narrow career path, subject to myriad market forces. Technical and vocational courses often teach skills that will be outdated in three years. But a liberal arts education allows graduates to adapt quickly to new intellectual environments. The job market may boom and collapse but being taught to think for oneself never disappears.

Alan Cordova is a senior politial science and astronomy double major. He splits his time between studying democratic failures in Asia and lunar eclipses in Turkey.

© 2006 Newsweek, Inc.
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