Liberal Arts Matters
Jan. 7, 2009
With this note, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences is
beginning a new tradition. On a monthly basis, I plan to share a
short note about some aspect of the College with you. I hope these
notes will be interesting and informative. I hope they'll provide a
perspective on an aspect of the College about which you may not
have previously been aware. And I hope that these notes move you to
comment on what I've written. Write back and share your thoughts, I
very much welcome your ideas.
Today I want to discuss what is at the heart of the College, the
liberal arts, and explain some of the things we are doing to build
a vibrant academic community centered on the liberal arts. I think
it is fair to say that across the country, the liberal arts are
misunderstood. In an environment where a growing number of people
appear to be looking to higher education for credentialing and
training for a first job, the liberal arts are often viewed as an
Here at Butler, we take a dramatically different view. An
education steeped in the basics of the liberal arts allows, indeed
encourages, students to explore academically and to be prepared for
anything life might present. A good liberal arts education and, in
fact, every good liberal arts course, will help students achieve
First, students will learn to improve their communication
skills, both orally and in writing. Regardless of the level they've
achieved when they enter the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences,
in every class, they will be pushed to improve. Being able to share
complex ideas with others is one mark of a truly educated person.
On a practical level, American business currently spends more than
$1 billion per year attempting to improve the communication skills
of employees. Job candidates who can communicate well are obviously
in very high demand.
Second, students will learn critical thinking skills. They'll
learn how important it is to ask thoughtful questions rather than
simply accepting information presented to them. They'll learn to
question their beliefs - and to defend those that warrant it.
They'll learn that different disciplines have different ways of
understanding the world and they'll begin to appreciate ways of
balancing different methodologies.
Third, students will learn to work in teams to solve problems.
The world is increasingly a complex place where people need to work
together to be successful. Liberal arts classes regularly provide
students with the opportunity to hone this ability.
Fourth, a good liberal arts education will teach students how to
learn and will instill a passion for life-long learning in them.
With new knowledge being created so voluminously, no student can
ever leave college knowing all there is to know. What's far more
important is for them to appreciate ways of learning so they can
keep up with advances in a host of fields over the course of their
Taken together, the efforts of faculty and students to deal with
these characteristics of a liberal arts education do more than
simply train students for a first job. Rather, they educate
students for a lifetime. Yes, our students are well prepared for
their first job and very competitive in the job market, and yes,
they are well positioned to move upward from that first job into
others of increasing responsibility, but, more importantly, they
are able to lead a purposeful life, enriching and improving the
quality of other lives they touch. As the College's core values
statement says, we want our students to "act wisely and
well in the world."
The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences has taken aggressive
steps to help students understand this intellectual framework that
ties the liberal arts together. Although I will mention a couple of
these actions in a moment, let me encourage you to explore our Liberal Arts
Matters webpages. You'll be able to view the full panoply of
activities we've initiated on those pages.
One of the exciting endeavors faculty have begun is to include a
statement in the syllabus of each course summarizing the liberal
arts value of that course. The perspectives of each faculty member
is slightly different and the statements make fascinating reading
and demonstrate to students that each course plays a role in a
well-rounded liberal arts education.
The College has also initiated an annual liberal arts essay
contest for students. Each year a committee of faculty members and
members of the College's Board of Visitors devise a question about
the liberal arts for students to address. This committee also
serves as the judges for submissions and awards a $1,000 first
prize to the author of the best essay. This year's prompt is:
Imagine that you had an hour to spend with President-elect
Obama and your task was to make sure he understood the nature and
value of a liberal arts education. What would you say to
A secondary, but very important, goal of these efforts is to
draw the diverse constituents of the College together in a
meaningful fashion. Rather than being representatives of 14
departments and multiple programs, we believe that our efforts will
help students, faculty and staff recognize that they are part of
something greater, something that has a shared academic
What do you think? Explore our webpages and tell me what we can
do better. Join in the fun of promoting the liberal arts. Take a
look at the statements written by members of the College's Board of
Visitors explaining how the liberal arts affected their lives
and send me your statement.
Think of the impact we'll have if we collect hundreds of such
Promoting the liberal arts is a work in progress.
Dean, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences