OPINION: The Case for Liberal Arts
(Photo taken by Geraldine Santoso ‘22)
At the 2016 Meeting of Association of American Colleges and Universities, a question was posed: “What is the liberal arts?” After the Boston Globe’s reporting of 28% of closures, mergers or changing missions among 500 small private colleges in the past fifty years, this question has only increased in relevance and importance. For those of us who choose to pursue a liberal arts education, it is finding the most unconventional route towards a common question, infusing spontaneity and creativity in the mundane. However, this may soon be coming to an end.
For the one-fifth of colleges facing fundamental stress, the ability to keep their doors open is growing less and less by the day. Despite the rising cost of tuition, revenue simply isn’t enough to cover the costs. The Boston Globe found tuition at St. Joseph's College in Rutland, VT covers “only just 58% of the school’s annual expenses.” Mount Ida College in Newton, MA closed last May due to ‘financial stress’ and Hampshire College is in the process of merging with a neighboring school due to declining revenue. The 40 early admission students were instructed to apply elsewhere as Hampshire may not have the funds to support a freshman class.
New England liberal arts schools are especially under attack. Our region, home to over 500 liberal arts colleges, is facing a rapid decline in college-aged population. With 18% of New England-area schools losing 20% or more of enrolled students, according to the Boston Globe, it’s a miracle that some schools are still open.
Despite the financial outlook, deans have continued to express resiliency and creativity. For some institutions, alternative classes help to keep the school afloat. Sterling College combated the shuttering of nearby colleges through specialization in farming, the environment and sustainability while piloting a continuing education program. However, Colby-Sawyer College eliminated English and philosophy majors to increase nursing and business programs while University of New Hampshire cut 18 lectures from the College of Liberal Arts due to budget cuts. The reach of the liberal arts today is slowly vanishing with each closing school or department.
In my first Italian class at Skidmore, there were fifteen students. Each semester, the number dropped, first to ten students and now three. Every Monday and Wednesday afternoon, I sit in a classroom with two other students while a multi-million-dollar science facility is being built just down the path. There are only two teachers in the department; I have yet to take a class with one of them. I’ve always wanted to take Italian and jumped at the chance to have the ability to learn something so vital to my family’s past, and the cementation of my place in a global narrative has always appealed to me. However, I fear for the program’s future.
As an International Affairs major, I appreciate the program’s interdisciplinary approach. I could be reading about the notorious legacy of colonization in Latin America while drawing on discussions from Cultural Anthropology or local militant perspectives from my Special Topics course. The thrill of connecting different perspectives from varying disciplines has allowed me to think beyond the textbook standards of topics and delve deeper into the background. And while the thought of taking an Environmental Science class for the major doesn’t seem like such a bad idea after all — even though I don’t consider myself a science person by any means — it’s about balance. Countries still go to war over natural resources and use them to subjugate whole groups of people. If it wasn’t for a liberal arts education, all I would see are chemical equations and tangled evolutionary trees. Instead, I see science as a means to solving world peace.
Taking a multitude of different classes, which is the hallmark of a liberal arts education, has benefits which extend far beyond the classroom door. The impact of taking a multitude of classes extends beyond college classrooms and hallways. According to the Boston Globe, 90% of graduates with a humanitarian degree are happy with their jobs and some companies, such as Google, are hiring applicants with interests (philosophy, religious studies) typically non-associated with STEM fields.
A liberal arts education allows one to think beyond the conventional, to question the relationship between quantum physics and the musings of Shakespeare. A liberal arts education allows one to find the solutions to world peace in mechanical engineering. A liberal arts education allows one to become truly versed in the ways and problems of this ever-changing world.