Students don’t take advantage of liberal arts education

Derek Thurber

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Credit: Douglas

Credit: Douglas

Much can be said in favor of Whitman as an institution of higher learning. Requiring a true liberal arts education of all its graduates is not one of those things.  

It could very easily be argued that this is a good thing. That the traditional liberal arts education first created in medieval academies is outdated and unnecessary in the modern world. That we no longer need to take a wide range of classes from different subjects.

One could argue that. But I would disagree.

I would in fact argue the complete opposite: in a world in which people are so connected at every minute to the rest of the world, a well rounded education that emphasis all aspects of the liberal arts could never be more important.  

In order to understand different world views, perspectives, cultures or ideologies we must first have some common ground on which to understand a person who may live thousands of miles away in another country or in the next house over. That common ground comes from a well-rounded understanding of the world through a liberal arts education.

In the western educational tradition the liberal arts were defined originally as the trivium of grammar, rhetoric and logic and the quadrivium of geometry, arithmetic, music and astronomy. Obviously, this is no longer what a liberal arts education means, but it is from this base that the modern conception of the liberal arts came from.

At the time of its conception, the liberal arts encompassed the entirety of human knowledge in general terms. Grammar, rhetoric and logic became the social studies and humanities; music remained music; geometry and arithmetic became mathematics and physics; and astronomy, as the only science at its time, became all of the modern sciences.

Based on this, in order to get a true liberal arts education today one would have to take social studies, humanities, music, math and science. Does this sound familiar? It should, because this is the foundation of the distribution requirements right here at Whitman.  

But it is the applications of this foundation that have led Whitman astray from its roots as a liberal arts institution.

The liberal arts should challenge the student to step outside of his or her comfort and take the classes he or she wouldn’t otherwise take. It should mean that a history major would take a hard science with a three-hour lab; that a biology major would take an insightful philosophy class; that an environmental studies major would take a foreign language; that a math major would take a literature class.

It should mean that every student who graduates would not just fill cheesy distribution requirements with easy classes but that they would truly take and learn about all the different kinds of knowledge that can be had.

Right now the humanities majors are taking “lab” sciences with no true labs and math classes with nothing harder than basic algebra. The science majors are taking surface level intro courses in the humanities and social studies. Language majors aren’t taking any fine arts. Math majors are avoiding writing classes like the plague. And almost nobody is taking more classes outside their comfort area than they absolutely must to fulfill their distribution requirements.

This is ridiculous.  

It is a privilege to come to a school like Whitman. So why waste this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn by limiting yourself to just one area?: an area that you will likely spend the rest of your life working in.  

Instead, try something different. Take a class you might never consider at first. Learn something new. You never know what will happen and you won’t regret it in 10, 15, 20 years when you no longer have the chance to learn something new and different.

Get a true liberal arts education while you can.  

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