The value of Liberal Arts: Looking past the quot;gen ed checklistquot;

by Beacon Staff • April 8, 2009

Emerson is not a liberal arts college in the traditional sense. Emerson's liberal arts commitment is woven together with the more performance-oriented approach that defines its pre-professional majors. We like to do creative things in ways that communicate well to other people, but in a way that reflects our commitment to the life of the mind and to critical thinking as the heart of any educational experience. This is why we have the Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies and the Honors Program, and it is why so many faculty teach from their own research interests. Each of these are vehicles for the delivery of a distinguished liberal arts education, though it is probably the general education curriculum that carries the bulk of this responsibility.

A series of conversations on this topic over the past year have raised some interesting questions about how we might move forward with our commitment to the liberal arts.

A task force on the liberal arts recently delivered a report, summarizing a year of discussion and reflection, and a long and thorough search for a new Dean of the Liberal Arts is likely to bring new talent and leadership to Emerson in this regard. The results, we hope, will be a college that better understands and celebrates the context in which communications and the arts are taught.

This conversation is just starting, and it could go in many different direction, depending on who gets involved and what ideas get proposed. Lots of ideas have already been floated, including a new "theming" of liberal arts courses around issues students more readily connect with, or perhaps more electives, more sequencing of gen eds, or smaller course sizes.

Any step forward requires avoiding thinking of the liberal arts and the pre-professional majors as separate learning experiences. We don't need compartmentalization, we need synergy. Most students are familiar with the dreary "general education course checklist," that series of courses one is encouraged to "get out of the way" in the first two years before the real party starts. Thinking past the gen ed checklist requires a rethinking of the background noise these courses are often relegated to, and imagine an active role for the liberal arts that provides a better context for the pre-professional orientations of the college.

An important place to start is by considering the real problems that confront people in the world of work today, especially during an economic downturn. These days, training the mind to be insightful, perceptive and flexible is a career skill, particularly in the changing global context of 21st-century work. Where for a previous generation it was enough just to train people to make widgets, since the widget factory was unlikely to change and was likely to be staffed by the same kind of folks you grew up with, these days, the widget factory will undergo radical transformations in the course of a few short years, and will operate among sites strewn across the planet.

What the successful Emerson graduate needs today is not only a skill, but an outlook, the capacity for adaptation, cultural understanding and intellectual breadth. Emerson students are (as anyone who has listened to passing Duck Tour announcers knows), individualistic, critical and thoughtful-not your average collegiate widgets, but naturally drawn to the kinds of intellectual challenge that the liberal arts provides.

Toward this end, conversations likely to continue next year will invite everyone to creatively envision a new and better synergy between the liberal arts and the majors, one that brings our liberal arts experience to the level of excellence of which it is capable.

The Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Study has started a series of events titled the "Liberal Arts Forum," the first of which, held in March, took on "student perspectives on the liberal arts." For nearly two hours, a panel that included SGA President Scott Fisher engaged students and Emerson alums pored over their experiences with the liberal arts.

With more Liberal Arts Forums scheduled for next year, students should jump into the debate, and help the college think past the gen ed checklist.

iSam Binkley is an assistant professor of communication studies and a contributor to /iThe Beacon.