Now more than ever, the liberal arts are essential to preparing students for success.
This editorial is featured in the Clé Verte 2022 special issue.
What are the liberal arts? Perhaps more importantly, why should it matter if we are a liberal arts college these days? These questions strike at the heart of Dartmouth’s identity, but the answers won’t be found in the endless platitudes on department websites or admissions brochures.
In its most common understanding, a liberal arts education means that students have the freedom to explore academically. Unlike a normal research university, you don’t have to immediately commit to majoring in a particular subject or area. Not only does learning a variety of subjects make you more interesting to sit next to at dinner parties, but also, in theory, you’ll feel more confident in your choice of study once you’ve explored all the options. possible. But surely there are more benefits to an education at Dartmouth than learning conversational skills and choosing from a wide range of course offerings.
For students to pay tens of thousands of dollars in tuition every year, there has to be more to the liberal arts. So much ink has been spilled—attacking and defending the merits of a liberal arts education in national publications—dedicated to this exact idea. In fact, a liberal arts education, such as that found at Dartmouth, has a unique formative role in the lives of its graduates; its duty is to develop and cultivate awareness in its alumni through a balanced and challenging program. The challenge facing Dartmouth now is to play this role continuously over decades, despite the changing tendencies of its students to specialize in one area or another.
Dartmouth is no stranger to the evolution of a much-loved tradition. As other articles in this issue will attest, the spirit of Green Key has changed significantly over the years. A similar change in the mindset of the College is underway – as often students direct their academic pursuits towards areas that they believe will yield the most return on their investment. Students often hear that if they choose an “employable” major, they will be able to repay any debt incurred during the process. This mindset is nothing new. By 1980, with debt mounting in response to increasingly common student loans, business had become the most popular college major in America. As total tuition costs approach one hundred thousand dollars a year, calls for students to seek employability and specialization will only grow.
This shift in student preferences is not painless. While Dartmouth is moving towards certain engineering sciences, other areas have been left behind. In 2021, the College dissolved education department and farm both the physical science library in the Kresge and the music library in the paddock without consulting a single science or music teacher. Different agendas move in and out of the limelight, and it’s not always a peaceful transition of power. But our growing collective penchant for “employable” majors doesn’t have to shut down the capacity for insight that should be the hallmark of a Dartmouth graduate.
The humanities, with their penchant for thinking about difficult questions, have long appeared as the natural ally of the liberal arts. But as any sleep-deprived engineer will tell you, the sciences are full of inherently difficult questions. However, any debate about the suitability of a particular field for the granting of a liberal arts education is a hair in the neck.
In an April 1955 article in The Atlantic, Dartmouth President John Sloan Dickey wrote that “the cause of liberal education will not be invaded by professionalization if the College sticks to its right to birthright and remain steadfastly committed to serious concern with matters of conscience.” Maintaining a commitment to this birthright is at the heart of the liberal arts – and we face a critical moment in our history. Today, interest in computing is skyrocketing, with demand nationally more than doubling in the past decade.Look at the end of Tuck Drive, where the new Irving Institute is located reign alongside the class of 1982 Engineering and Computer Science Center.
Dartmouth’s challenge, therefore, is to ensure that its students can think for themselves as they step into the world. First set up in 1994, our distributive requirements are the latest permutation in a long line of ways the College encourages Dartmouth students to engage with a diverse host of topics and issues. Dickey presented the “Great Issues” courses for older people, in which they looked at issues facing their country and the world. Today, the Dickey Center for International Understanding continues Dickey’s mission of instilling in Dartmouth students an understanding of the world’s problems and a commitment to do something about them.
Our lives don’t happen in a vacuum – they impact the world and all graduates should understand their part in it. Engineering majors may complain about the philosophy course they have to take to graduate — or vice versa — but this exposure does them a great favor. Learning from peers and teachers with different values and backgrounds broadens your intellectual horizons and forces you to consider other perspectives. A software engineer who debated in class what “good” means according to Aristotle’s dialogues is probably less likely to code the Terminator than one who didn’t.
Dartmouth’s Call to Lead campaign asserts that “Today, more than ever, the world needs energetic, broadly educated leaders who can identify and analyze problems, develop solutions and take action.” , emphasizing “broadly educated leaders”. Success doesn’t come from being an Excel or Powerpoint prodigy. It is much more likely to come from learning to think critically and exploring beyond the limits of established knowledge. Dartmouth liberal arts education should plant the seeds for a student to become a lifelong learner, who is comfortable with ambiguity and able to draw conclusions after carefully questioning information from which he disposes. Only then will students have the breadth and depth of perspective necessary to thrive and do good.
It’s not just Dartmouth presidents who have a lot to say about developing well-rounded human beings. In his 2014 book “Beyond College”, Wesleyan University President Michael Roth wrote that “education is for human development, human freedom, not the transformation of a individual into a being capable of performing a particular task. That would be slavery. As Dartmouth invests in technical sciences, it must ensure that its engineers and computer scientists – and the rest of its students – get not only degrees that are technically competent, but also morally and intellectually curious. Disciples in the sciences can and should receive as rigorous a liberal arts education as their compatriots in the humanities. But this is only possible if Dartmouth reaffirms its responsibility to ensure that its graduates leave with the seeds of a well-formed conscience germinating in their minds.