Whitman alumni weigh in on the value of liberal arts education

Jocelyn Richard

As seniors at liberal arts schools across the country prepare to enter one of the worst job markets in recent memory, a number of colleges and universities have decided to cut humanities programs, an evolution highlighting a growing debate in higher education about the value of the liberal arts.  Over the past year, a series of articles in the New York Times documented many institutions’ evolutions away from the liberal arts and toward more career-oriented training in an effort to help students compete for jobs. According to Whitman alums, however, a liberal arts education can be a student’s greatest asset in post-grad life, preparing students very well to meet both professional and personal goals.

Joshua Smith ’07, a religion major, said his liberal arts education presented him with new ways to think about his faith and engage in dialogue with the members of his church. Smith attends Journey Church in Walla Walla along with a number of past and present Whitties.

“Whitman is a very different entity than most church organizations comprised mainly of Walla Wallans;   it’s been an interesting road to walk,” said Smith. “Every time there’s a controversial issue brought up, politically, Whitman students and alumni don’t necessarily disagree with the community, but they process things very differently.”

Smith described one way some Journey members have thought about marriage rights.

“Some who have grown up in Walla Walla with Republican backgrounds would say that homosexuality is sinful, therefore we want to uphold marriage between a man and woman, therefore we don’t want same-sex marriage, therefore we’re going to vote with the Republican ticket,” Smith explained. “Or, sometimes being a Republican is first in the line of reasoning; we’re Republican, therefore we want to uphold marriage [between] a man and a woman.”

In contrast, Smith observed that Whitman alumni and students at his church tend to think about this relationship in a different way.

“I think the Christian Whitman students recognize that there shouldn’t be an intrinsic relationship between Republicans and Christians. They realize these need to be separated. To assume that because you’re a Republican, you’re also a Christian or that you’re a Christian because you’re a Republican is not true,” he said.

Martin Wagner ’83, a geology major, noted that the ability to approach an issue from many different angles was one of the most important skills he learned at Whitman, and one he uses every day as an attorney specializing in environmental justice.

“Particularly for being a lawyer, but I think really for being a human being, it’s a bad idea to be too narrowly focused on any particular thing when you’re an undergraduate,” said Wagner. “As a lawyer, you want to be able to understand how things work. It’s useful to have a breadth of knowledge, but it’s important to have that training in analytical thinking, writing and speaking that you can then apply to whatever specific area of law you’re practicing.”

Like Wagner, Caleb Foster ’91 was able to apply the skills he gained  during his time at Whitman to his career. Shortly after graduating from Whitman with a degree in English, Foster took a job at a local winery and learned how to make wine on the job from his boss, who hired him solely on the basis of his being a Whitman graduate. Having never received technical training in wine making or attended business school, Foster and his wife Nina, also a Whitman alum, now co-own Buty Winery in Walla Walla and are involved in all aspects of wine making including production, marketing and financing.

“If you had told me graduation day that I would work at a winery: let alone own a winery: I would have laughed out loud,” said Foster. “Now, when I go to work at the winery, Nina and I adapt all the aspects of our learning to what we do. One of the reasons I love the wine business, and the reason my boss was correct in his assessment that a Whitman College student would be the perfect person to bring on board, is because Whitman students have the holistic perspective you need to understand how wine fits into the world and how to communicate that.”

Smith shared Wagner and Foster’s belief that the liberal arts provides students with an ideal education. However, he acknowledges that this perspective on the liberal arts is also idealistic, noting that attending schools like Whitman is not affordable for many students.

“Cost is really prohibitive for the tier of lower-class families,” Smith said. “With the way compound interest works, in 20 years Whitman could cost as much as $100,000 per year. A legitimate concern is: How are we expected to afford this? Luckily, most of those schools give out very healthy financial aid to compensate.”

Another concern is that liberal arts educations may not prepare students well for actually securing a career: an anxiety highlighted by the New York Times in a recent article about the popularity of internships. Wagner said that when he started doing field work after college, he sometimes felt less prepared than some students from larger universities.

“When I graduated from Whitman there’s no doubt I felt a little bit behind some of the students who had gone to less-liberal arts focused schools,” said Wagner. “For example, when I went to do a summer field camp as part of requirement for the geology department, I remember feeling that there were people at that camp from big universities with a lot more exposure to technical geology than I had, and they definitely knew things I didn’t know,” said Wagner. “But I remember feeling very confident of my preparation to continue learning and that I wouldn’t be behind for very long.”

Foster agrees [with Wagner] that liberal arts graduates may need to pursue other types of knowledge, like technical training, in careers that involve specialized areas of operation. However, after eight years of working with a consultant at Buty Winery, he has seen that technical expertise is only useful if incorporated in a broader perspective.

“We did lack something in the wine business and realized that if we wanted to accelerate our company and go to the top, we needed to know more. So we hired a consultant to give us a highly technical analysis of wine making,” said Foster. “But interestingly, nowadays when we meet with her, we don’t talk about technical wine making; we talk about everything from culture to international global trade to finance.”

All three alumni agree that students should not be overly apprehensive about the poor job market.

“I think if you’re coming from Whitman, you’re extremely well-prepared to have a career and a life that’s fulfilling for you,” said Wagner. “The particular situation in the economy may mean it takes a little longer to get there: maybe. But I think it’s important to be patient and not to expect to have your dream job or dream life right out of college.”

Foster agreed, stressing that ultimately, the best asset a student can possess in post-grad life is passion.

“Academia was instilled in me all my life, but that wasn’t where my passion lay. When I turned grapes into wine it was like magic, and ever since then I’ve been interested in that field. I’ve been able to apply so much of what I learned at Whitman to the wine business.”