College of Liberal Arts & Sciences

Liberal Arts Matters

Jan. 7, 2009

Michael ZimmermanDear Friends,

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 irrelevant anachronism.

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 four goals.

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 lives.

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 him?

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 purpose.

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 statements.

Promoting the liberal arts is a work in progress.

Michael Zimmerman
Dean, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences