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Sept. 25, 2014 Volume 36, No. 5

Merits of liberal arts education discussed at symposium

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From left, Pat Okker, deputy provost, and Mel George, University of Missouri System president emeritus, spoke with moderator Jim Cogswell Sept. 16 at a symposium on the merits of a liberal arts education. Photo by Rob Hill.

Liberal arts prepare students for lifetime of learning, panelists say

In a time when student-loan debt is at an all-time high and freshmen are encouraged to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math to secure financial futures, what is the value of a liberal arts education?

That was the question asked by University of Missouri System President Emeritus Mel George and Interim Deputy Provost Pat Okker Sept. 16 at a 175th anniversary commemorative week symposium called “Is ‘Liberal’ Education Out of Style?”

The resounding consensus among the two panelists, moderated by MU Libraries Director Jim Cogswell, and attendees was that it is not — even though the word “liberal” might be. These days, “liberal” is most commonly used in politics. But George pointed out that its origin is from the Latin word “liber” — “free” — and dates back to ancient Greece.

“It relates to the duty of the citizen to provide for society as a whole,” George said. “There has to be a benefit to the entire society, not just the individual.” As for the use of the word in the phrase “liberal arts education,” it suggests an education with longevity and breadth, or in George’s words, one that’s “good for a long time to come.”

George, who served as president of St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, from 1985 to 1994, recounted to the audience a question posed to him by a concerned parent: Why does St. Olaf only offer a course in economics and not accounting, which would better prepare a student for a job? “And I said, ‘For which job?’ ” George recalled. “ ‘His first one or his fifth one?’ ”

Vocational instruction for today’s jobs might not apply in 10 or 20 years, George said. A benefit of a liberal arts education is the lessons learned — how to talk about difficult subjects, give and receive constructive criticism, develop an aesthetic sense, adapt to an ever-changing world. These life lessons serve a long-term purpose, he said.

“The university education that prepares you for your first two years of work only is a ludicrous waste of money,” George said.

Brian Foster, who retired as MU’s provost Jan. 1, 2014, pointed out that students who pursue professional degrees don’t always end up in their chosen field. Less than half of students who graduate with an engineering degree end up as engineers, he said.

Okker, an English professor, challenged fellow faculty members to find a middle ground between making students job-ready and developing them as lifelong learners.

To that point, Lynelle Phillips, an instructor in the Sinclair School of Nursing, discussed a health care trend: Providers are requiring registered nurses who earned their license through a technical diploma program to return to school to get a bachelor’s of science in nursing.

“Hospitals and health care employers are realizing the benefit of a liberal arts education,” Phillips said. “We have a more diverse society now, so as health care workers, we have to be more culturally competent, and we have a health care system that’s going through an overhaul. These are complex problems. There is recognition that the liberal arts education is valuable.” The School of Nursing developed an RN to BSN bridge program for those learners.

Echoed throughout the hourlong symposium was adaptability. These days, job and career changes are more common, and many students will one day find themselves in jobs that don’t exist yet.

Sharing another story from his time at St. Olaf, George said he was chatting with the mother of a former English student, getting an update on the student’s career. “She said, ‘Well, it’s startling, but he’s just taken a job as a computer programmer,’ ” George said. Despite the student having never taken a programming course in college, he wasn’t discouraged. “He said, ‘St. Olaf taught me two things: how to think and how not to be afraid.’ A liberal arts education has to do with adaptability. We have to look at our students and their future needs to be adaptable and change.

“We must not give them things that have no lasting value.”

 — Kelsey Allen