College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
Liberal Arts Matters

Thoughts for the Class of 2012

Each year a faculty member is asked to write a statement for the incoming class about the value of a liberal arts education here at Butler. This year's essay, "The Liberal Arts Matter," was written by Dr. Brian Giesler, Assistant Professor, Psychology.

The Liberal Arts Matter

If you don't think the liberal arts matter, I guarantee that you will by the time you've finished reading this essay. Admittedly, few things in life are truly guaranteed, but your investment here is small, just a few minutes of reading time. In return, I promise not to beat around the bush. In the span of a few paragraphs, I will not only define the liberal arts but convince you of their importance. That's a bold claim - not only is it free of caveats and qualifiers but you'll note I promised to get to the point as quickly as possible (something for which we academics generally are not known). So, what do you think? To entice you further, I'm going to stop writing about me and start writing about you.

Because of your hard work and intellectual prowess, you have been admitted to Butler University, a thriving, multi-faceted, liberal arts community. "OK," you may be thinking, "multi-faceted and thriving. That part sounds good, but what about the rest of it? The phrase 'liberal arts' does little for me - in fact, I'm worried that being a member of this so-called community means having to take a bunch of pointless courses unrelated to my major that won't help me on the job market or into the law, medical, or grad school of my choice. So, why should I care about the liberal arts?" Fair enough, and yes, I can see you nervously eyeing the bruised state of the economy right now. But before answering why, let's address the what. What are the liberal arts?

A good place to start would be with what the liberal arts are not. The term liberal arts is something of a misnomer, conjuring up images of left-leaning, ivory tower academics who putter around with decaying books devoted to philosophy, Greek literature, and the like - those classic but esoteric topics that scholars seem to revere (for some reason) but that hold little relevance for the real world. This perspective, while popular, is wrong.

One way it's wrong is that it's too narrow. The liberal arts embrace not just the classics, but a wide range of disciplines that span the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences. At Butler (and most institutions of higher learning), the liberal arts do indeed encompass subjects like philosophy and literature, but also biology, mathematics, anthropology, physics, psychology, journalism, sociology, computer science, modern languages, history, communication studies, political science, religion, chemistry and so many others. These disciplines are all alive and well, as are their practitioners and scholars. (And we certainly don't 'putter around' - we occasionally amble, but more typically stride about, especially if we've just made a pit stop at the Starbucks in Atherton Union.)

But it's still a mistake to conceive of the liberal arts merely as a collection of disciplines, no matter how broad or inclusive. What might prove more illuminating is contrasting a liberal arts education with the kind provided by a professional college. As you may know, Butler has several outstanding professional schools (e.g., the College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences) that are distinct from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the part of Butler to which you've been admitted. Professional schools emphasize acquiring specialized technical knowledge, skills and ways of thinking that allow their students to immediately enter specific professions. By contrast, a liberal arts education is much broader in scope. Students of the liberal arts are exposed to a greater array of disciplines and perspectives, although it's also true they acquire specific knowledge and skills in their major. A consequence of this approach is that our students often (though not always) need an advanced degree if they wish to pursue a career based on their undergraduate focus. For example, psychology majors who wish to become clinical psychologists (i.e., mental health counselors) must earn at least a masters degree before they can see patients.

"OK," you may now be thinking, "a liberal arts education provides breadth, but I fail to see why that's such a good thing. In fact, it kind of seems like a disadvantage. You appear to be telling me that after investing a lot of time, effort and money into my undergraduate studies, I'll have to invest even more and go to graduate school." Not necessarily. If the idea of seeking an advanced degree troubles you, you should know that many of our students forego further schooling. Of this group, the vast majority are gainfully employed within a year after graduating Butler. You might be wondering how this could be. For example, if someone were to end up with 'just' a bachelor's degree in philosophy, for what sort of job would that person possibly be qualified? Scanning the want ads reveals few entry level philosophy positions. Yet, our graduates, including our philosophy majors, experience little difficulty securing not just good jobs, but good careers. Many employers clearly want what a liberal arts education confers. But why? What makes a liberal arts education valuable?

The answer is straightforward: The primary value of a liberal arts education is that it teaches you how to think.

That's it - that's as direct as I can be. The overarching goal of a liberal arts education is not to teach you about a particular subject or to think in a particular way, but to think well, in general. (By the way, I'm not implying that you're not a good thinker now, but if all goes well, you'll be dramatically better by the time you graduate). However, becoming a good thinker doesn't occur automatically or quickly. Mastering your intellect will require commitment, time and hard work. Fortunately, you'll get lots of practice doing exactly that during your undergraduate career - think of it as sending your brain to the gym for four years. Taking coursework in Butler's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences means that you will constantly be exposed to new ideas and perspectives that will frequently push you out of your comfort zone. You will be challenged not just to read texts and memorize facts but to interpret, discuss, imagine, critique, analyze, and synthesize using both qualitative and quantitative methodologies. You will be asked to draw conclusions and defend them; to generate new insights and solutions. As you progress, you will be required to think in increasingly creative and complex terms, sometimes on topics that you never knew existed and may never again encounter after you've left our campus. This is because a liberal arts education is not just intended to transmit specific information and skills, but to help you discover, develop and harness your own intellectual talents and abilities. That is the premise and the pay-off of a liberal arts education.

But, as they say, that's not all. Consider the following passage, the first sentence of our college's official core values statement: "The liberal arts' basic and historic purpose is at once to teach us to think for ourselves, to act wisely and well in the world, to undertake occupations useful to ourselves and others." I really like that sentence. Not only does it eloquently capture the essence of the liberal arts but it also emphasizes that learning to think is only part of our tradition. The other, often overlooked part is learning to act on your thinking, to allow your rationality and creativity to inform your words and deeds. This requires learning to engage with others - to be receptive to others' viewpoints, but also to be able to express your own thoughts and ideas through speech, writing and other media. This also requires contributing to the world around you in constructive ways. The liberal arts tradition is sometimes equated with navel-gazing, but nothing could be further from the truth. As you continue to hone your abilities, you'll begin to appreciate what they can do, and you'll want to take them out for a spin. Go far enough and you may find you've written a New York Times best seller, developed a revolutionary web application, published a groundbreaking scientific paper, or founded a Fortune 500 company. Butler is particularly attuned to this aspect of the liberal arts and offers a multitude of internship, research and service learning opportunities that will allow you to continue developing your intellect while putting it to work in meaningful ways.

So, have I convinced you yet? If you're wavering, bear in mind that it's not just me who thinks the liberal arts matter. The same skills and talents I described above, the ability and willingness to acquire and analyze complex information, to think critically and creatively, to take different perspectives and communicate effectively with others - those skills that are the lynchpins of a liberal arts education are exactly the skills that, in survey after survey, employers say they value and look for when making hiring decisions. Although some professions will always require specialized training and technical knowledge, in a rapidly changing world where whole technologies can become obsolete overnight, individuals who can adapt to new demands and embrace complexity will always have opportunities.

Throughout the proceeding paragraphs, I've argued that the primary value of a liberal arts education is because it teaches you how to think. A liberal arts education is certainly not the only way to achieve this end, but it's probably one of the most efficient. Good thinking, in turn, is highly practical. It will help you realize your career and vocational aspirations, regardless of whether you plan to enter the workforce directly after college, attend graduate school or do something else entirely. (Incidentally, if your goal is to be admitted into a prestigious law program, you should know that philosophy majors, who in many ways epitomize the liberal arts tradition, consistently outscore all others on law school entrance exams). But there's a bigger picture: becoming a better thinker will make you a better person. By that I mean not just better for you but better for us.

For you, thinking well will enable you to more readily attain your goals and live your life in accordance with your values, which I would argue is important in its own right but is also a key determinant of well-being. Perhaps just as importantly, a liberal arts education will put you in a better position to identify the goals and values you should adopt in the first place. Instead of having to rely on the authority of others, you will have the know-how to acquire the information and experiences you need to make your own decisions. Will you value family? Faith? Wealth? Love? Fame? How will you label the points on your moral compass? Toward which destinations will you direct your life, if any? A liberal arts education will help you to identify the alternatives and to weigh the merits and drawbacks of each.

But what about us? Above, I suggested that being a better thinker benefits not just you, but us (all of us). I'm sure you've noticed the truly monumental problems confronting us, both as a nation and as a global community. Right now we are in desperate need of a generation of good thinkers. A liberal arts education is no panacea, but it provides an efficient way to train people to evaluate information in a critical manner, to embrace complexity and to approach problems from new perspectives, attributes that will be essential to forge solutions to the numerous ecological, political, social, and economic problems we are currently facing. "To act wisely and well in the world" is perhaps the most important part of the liberal arts tradition, one that I hope you will take to heart during your time here with us.

OK, that's it. Have I convinced you that the liberal arts matter? If so, thank you for your attention. I truly appreciate the time you've invested in reading these words. If not, I sincerely apologize for failing to live up to my earlier guarantee, but as of now, we're just not going to see eye-to-eye on this. Perhaps you object to specific claims I've made. Maybe you reject my entire premise and are even now formulating counter arguments. Please, by all means, do so. Send me your protests and complaints. As a member of the liberal arts community, I am beholden to consider them if they are well reasoned and expressed. But if you've come this far, if you have read and reflected on my words, your actions mark you as part of that self-same community. The value of membership may not be clear to you just now, but if you think carefully about why you disagree, if you can articulate your reasons, if you can engage me in an attempt to convince me of the merits of your position, perhaps, just perhaps, someday, you will.

Regardless of where you stand on the value of the liberal arts, I'd like to close this essay by welcoming you to Butler generally and to our college in particular. This really is a thriving and multi-faceted community and a wonderful place in which to spend your undergraduate career. Whether you believe it or not, if you work hard, if you commit to your education, if you take advantage of the many opportunities afforded by our faculty, students and administration, you will emerge with a powerful and finely honed intellect, one that will allow you to pursue any goal and realize any ambition. You will have become a better thinker, and in so doing, a better person. I guarantee it.

R. Brian Giesler, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Psychology
Butler University
July 2008