College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
Liberal Arts Matters

Thoughts for the Class of 2016

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 Banquet," was written by Dr. Anne Wilson, Professor of Chemistry, College of Liberal Arts & Sciences.

The Liberal Arts Banquet

Welcome to Butler University and welcome to the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences!  It has become the tradition of our college that you receive an essay from a faculty member about the benefits of getting a degree in the liberal arts.  Butler University has a mission statement, which states:

Butler's mission is to provide the highest quality of liberal and professional education and to integrate the liberal arts into professional education, by creating and fostering a stimulating intellectual community built upon interactive dialogue and inquiry among faculty and students.

The liberal arts, which are the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences, are at the center of the entire educational mission of the University and they infuse the study of every major.  You may be wondering, "Why should you choose a major in the liberal arts if you could get the benefits of a liberal arts education in a major in one of our professional schools like the College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences or the College of Communication?"  Quite simply, majors in these schools are based in the liberal arts, but the focus of these programs is to instruct graduates to perform a particular task or job.  They are preparing dancers, teachers, and accountants to perform in the roles of dancer, teacher, and accountant.  We won't be grooming you for particular positions, but rather giving you broader skills that you will need and use for the rest of your life in almost everything that you do.

You can think of it this way, study of the liberal arts at a college or university can be likened to joining a huge banquet.  You have many choices of what to eat, when to eat, and how much should you eat.  There are familiar dishes, servings from other cultures, combinations of exotic spices you have never tried, and cuisines that you did not know existed.  You can sample a taste from every bowl at our feast until you find the one that satisfies you.  Our colleagues in the professional schools join us at the banquet as well, sample a single serving, and then leave us for their professional study.  You are here for the full tasting menu, a little bit of every dish, including dessert!

You have a large number of academic majors to choose from in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.  The last time I checked, there were thirty-five.  If you don't find one you like, you could always create an individualized major to fit your needs.  Once you make that choice of a major, or change that choice, add a minor, or add that second (or third!) major, you will learn how to think as they do in that discipline.  I do not mean to imply that you have not learned how to think.  I am sure that your academic preparation to this point has had you reflecting and reasoning quite a bit.  However, within your subject of study within the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, you will not only study the required skills of your discipline, you will also learn complexities like how a discussion is organized, how to support the points made in the discussion, the opposing schools of thought or controversies on particular topics, as well as discovering and appreciating the general philosophy of your chosen field.  You will be able to take an opinion, support it with quotes, facts, or data and it will become a reasoned statement.  I can assure you, that whatever your next step is, employers, graduate and professional schools, and parenthood all require the ability to take what you know and adapt it to diverse situations, rather than applying a known recipe to generate an expected outcome.

Through all this study, you should be generating an understanding of your chosen discipline.  You will see how disparate pieces can fit together to become the whole.  As you put together these parts, you may find that there are portions that you don't agree with. You will be able to explain why these opposing points of view exist without having to accept them as truth.  This does not mean that you have to let go of what you believe, whether that is gravity or democratic socialism or existentialism.  You just need to understand what you believe, be able to understand both sides of the argument, and occasionally, be able to admit when your argument breaks down.  If we could apply understanding to every part of our lives, things might be much better.  A little understanding can go a long way.

Along the way, you are going to find out a great deal about the process of learning.  You will figure out how to effectively take in information, determine what you are able to comprehend completely, and conclude how long it takes you to master the knowledge you need.  This recognition of your learning style is critical.  When you leave us and move on to your next step, you will find that more than 70 % of what you need to know is "on the job training" regardless if that job is as a tax attorney, a parent, a scientist, or a social worker.  Graduate and professional schools will expect that you know how to acquire new information. Employers will require it if you want to be successful. Your children will depend on it.  Life does not come with an instruction manual, and maintaining lifelong learning is a critical skill. There are no hard and fast rules that address every challenge or apply to every situation.

Going back to our banquet, your professional school colleagues will sample their single serving of thinking, understanding and learning.  After nibbling many of the items on the menu, you will savor thinking, understanding, and learning, not only as an appetizer, but also as your complete multi-course meal.  What is the dessert?  I believe there are two other skills you will be learning through your study of the liberal arts, and these are what truly differentiate your liberal arts education from other bachelors programs.

Perhaps more like the coffee that goes with dessert, the first of these skills is the ability to identify a problem, challenge or issue.  This is not the ability to point out where someone else has gone wrong, finding a trivial mistake that has little impact, or where someone has deviated from an accepted method or system.  I mean identifying the fundamental problems that lead to larger difficulties.  The world is very complex and the simple problems that are easy to identify and solve have already been addressed.  The liberal arts allow you to look deeply at a situation, separate the symptoms of the problem from the actual issue, and give you the terminology to identify the challenge accurately.  For example, you notice a drop in the academic performance of your child.  You will not make the easy assumption that your child is lazy (although he or she might be), but will be able to determine that they are distracted in class because they are not getting enough sleep at night.  Complex topics like world hunger, economic crises, healthcare, political unrest, and education will require careful analysis to separate the real challenges from the artificial issues created by those who have the most to gain by framing the issue in a particular way.

The real dessert item, your sweet reward for so much work, is that the study of the liberal arts will give you the skill of asking the right question.  We are inundated with information from all sorts of sources, but we can't process all of this information.  With your liberal arts knowledge, you will correctly identify the problem, and this will allow you to ask the question that brings us all toward actual solutions.  It is much more than punching a few things into Google.  It is taking all that you have learned from your courses in the sciences, social sciences and humanities and applying that knowledge in new ways to ask "can we do better?"  There is no system or method that you can apply to ask the right question, this ability will come from the diversity of experiences that you will have in your study of the liberal arts. 

Returning to the mission statement of the University, remember that you are not at this banquet alone.  We really do "create and foster a stimulating intellectual community built upon interactive dialogue and inquiry among faculty and students."  You will have classmates in the liberal arts who will be studying different things than you and these colleagues will ask you questions that may be unexpected or unwelcome. This is similar to someone insisting that you try a new food - you should embrace the opportunity!  Butler faculty members are joining you on this journey as well.  We may have eaten at a few more banquets than you have, but we have chosen to be here with you to continue to test our limits, to try new things, and to continue to learn.  Pay special attention to the "interactive dialogue" part of the Butler mission - this means that we need your full participation - you can't just take your food to go. 

Enjoy the liberal arts banquet and be sure to eat your fill.  Find the right questions to ask and hopefully the answers to those questions will be the beginning of a lifelong journey.  I am delighted that you all have chosen to start that journey with us in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Butler University and welcome to our table.

Anne Wilson, Ph.D.
Professor of Chemistry
Butler University
August 2012