Re-examining the Liberal Arts

Peggy Li, Opinion Editor

As I enter my fourth year of Whitman College, having traversed the hallowed halls of Olin, having traipsed across Ankeny in both snow boots and flip flops and having cried in a professor’s office, I implore the first-years to think about just one question. What do you want out of your education? Whitman markets itself as a ‘Liberal Arts College,’ where presumably, the use of liberal is directed towards the initiative to ‘free your mind.’ Why else would they require prospective biology majors to read the Symposium, or force a history major to take seven science credits including lab, if not to force us to gain even a sliver of perspective of what a different perspective might be like?

Yet every so often, I wonder why I didn’t just go to a school like ‘U Dub’ and experience the majesty of a 24-hour dining hall with 46,000 other students. That is, until I walk out of a seminar class with six other people after having discussed a long-dead philosopher. And it doesn’t have to be philosophy, either. Every time you have a meaningful and engaging discussion about something totally ‘useless’ in the real world, you are on some level getting your money’s worth. The experience you are implicitly choosing at a liberal arts college is precisely that of fulfilling your desire to learn for its own sake and to meaningfully engage with ideas, rather than learn skills for a job. That’s not to say that one couldn’t get that same feeling at a larger school, just that the smaller college size probably makes it a bit easier.

However, the quest to ultimately ‘free your mind’ is not something an institution can accomplish for every student. For every challenging, mind-expanding and thought-provoking class Whitman has to offer, there are just as many classes you feel comfortable with, that would just be business as usual. The college accomplishes its job by offering good courses. It seems to me that the task of the individual liberal arts student is to knowingly pursue a good education. Although it may be difficult, it probably involves taking some of the books we read seriously, and proactively deciding what’s important to you. Sure, not every assigned reading is going to have a life-changing effect, but there will be ideas you ‘encounter’ (haha) that do have the potential to shift your world-view. We are still young; ages 18 to 22 allows us just some slight plasticity and moldability. We are not yet set in our ways.

And so, the clichéd phrase ‘learning how to think’ turns out to have some merit. Even after three years of Whitman college, what I’ve realized is that for all the wisdom our professors have, they cannot tell us what to believe. And for all the love and guidance our parents have given us, they cannot lead our lives for us. Learning how to think well becomes the task of every person, and the quality of our beliefs is the direct by-product of how seriously we take our education at this moment. While college is touted as a time of exploration and fun, my real advice to first-years is to genuinely reflect on what you want out of your time here, and who you want to be.