Liberal arts curriculum at Emerson is crucial

by Editorial Board / Beacon Staff • January 28, 2016

At issue: Liberal arts courses underrated at Emerson

Our take: We can’t afford to write-off these requirements.

Emerson students usually love their classes. After all, this is an institution which prides itself on low math requirements and early integration into major-related courses. But there’s always one part of the curriculum catching flack and which students bemoan—standard liberal arts courses. This includes communications courses; scientific, historical, and literary perspectives courses; and global and U.S. diversity courses. The purpose of these requirements is a classic notion—expand the mind, expose the student to new subjects, and introduce practical general skills. However, at a school where students view anything other than a course in their trade as a frivolous use of time and a waste of money, liberal arts demands seem to bring nothing but eye rolls. 

In the last decade, and especially with the advent of an election year, which forces us to hold up a mirror to our nation’s values, we’ve watched the cost of college creep up and have become increasingly obsessed with measuring the return investment of an education. Our bank accounts slump, our book stacks climb, and feverishly, we ask, “Is it all worth it? What am I doing this for?” Certainly, we go to college because we know a degree means a fatter paycheck and professional respect. But there’s more to it than just this. In his book Excellent Sheep, William Deresiewicz writes about the purpose of college: “Education is more than the acquisition of marketable skills, and you are more than your ability to contribute to your employer’s bottom line or the nation’s GDP ... To ask what college is for is to ask what life is for, what society is for—what people are for.” And these are vital questions.

Our liberal arts coursework teaches us the ability to remain fully human—to develop ideals, to be empathetic, to read, and then walk in another’s shoes, to establish a habit of skepticism, to question, to learn to think. It is these elements of our liberal arts education that work in harmony and inform our designated fields of interest. Media makers are the individuals that play a heavy-handed role in shaping public discourse. Our art creates influence, and so the diversity, inclusivity, and progressive quality of it matters a great deal. Courses like climate change, Islamic ways of life, African American literature, and social psychology can be invaluable to young adults. These aren’t throwaway classes, they’re essential to creating conscious and relevant media. To return to Deresiewicz’s text, “A real education sends you into the world bearing questions, not resumes.” It is through curiosity that a person grows, learns, and pursues new endeavors. 

In theory, our recent strides toward greater cultural competency should make our liberal arts program more appealing. Being an artistic person means understanding a wide variety of perspectives and emotions, the same kind of understanding that allows us to respect other cultures. By increasing the cultural awareness of the courses at Emerson we are helping to foster a community that will have greater interest in artistic pursuits, and thus more interest in the liberal arts courses offered at ELA.

Art schools are a dying breed. According to a report from Liberal Education, the number of art schools in the U.S. dropped from 212 in 1990 to 130 in 2013. This is because American college students are hyperfocusing on what helps them pay their student debt the fastest. Majors such as economics, finance, and political science are rapidly becoming more popular because they’re seen as pathways to a lucrative career. While this is understandable given the economic climate, we cannot abandon the arts for the sake of money. Emerson needs to maintain its status as a marriage of communication and the arts and not become a trade school for marketing majors. This requires us to take our liberal arts classes seriously.

Almost every area of study provides at least one relevant course from the second students step on campus fall freshman year—the journalism department has two. As our classmates advance through their major curricula, classes become increasingly focused, and outside clubs supplement nicely from the beginning, too. What more can the college provide? While many of us came to Emerson because of these specialized opportunities, we disservice ourselves by avoiding a sociology or science lesson.