Liberal arts still relevant

Many of us who live in Lawrence in the shadows of Kansas University and Haskell Indian Nations University often forget that there is another institution of higher learning only 10 miles away in Baldwin City: Baker University. Over the almost two decades in which I have lived in Kansas I have had a variety of interactions with Baker students, faculty and administrators and have almost always come away thinking that Baker is a very fine place indeed.

The spark for writing this column comes from a press release I read that Baker has just received a major, seven-figure gift from a loyal alumnus, the second such gift it has recently received. The gift will be used to renovate the major instructional buildings on the Baldwin City campus. It deserves congratulations on this achievement.

My most frequent encounters with Baker people are in class. Every year a number of Baker graduates decide to come to KU to go to law school, and I have the good fortune to have some of them as students in one of the classes I teach. And it is good fortune, for I have found that Baker students are virtually always hardworking and well prepared. I have been especially impressed over the years by Baker graduates’ writing skills. Unlike graduates of many colleges and universities, Baker folks generally can write well. To my mind, that is a great advantage for any would-be lawyer.

These days, the “liberal arts” and especially the humanities are under attack. Critics of liberal arts education argue that it is too unfocused and does not prepare students for the rigors of a tough economy and job market. These folks say that colleges and universities need to teach their students marketable skills like accounting or engineering. It’s more important, these critics say, for students to be able to do advanced calculus or double entry accounting than to know how to read a poem or write a readable paragraph. To my mind, this criticism is wrong-headed.

Baker offers, for me, a prime example of how a liberal arts education is, in fact, a marketable skill. Indeed, a liberal arts education gives students a number of marketable skills. A true liberal arts education includes not only the study of literature, but also history, mathematics and even the sciences, among many other topics. This was the basis of the whole concept of “distribution requirements” and related notions so prevalent when I went to college in the ’60s.

The basic premise underlying a liberal arts education is that it teaches students how to think critically, how to read competently and how to write clearly. To think critically, students must understand a variety of approaches, including humanistic, scientific and social scientific methods. To learn to read competently, students must read constantly and widely during their college careers. To write clearly, students must write frequently and have their writing critiqued so that it can improve.

Students who learn these basic skills can be assured they are prepared to go into the business world or continue into more specialized educational programs. What more marketable skill can there be than critical thinking, competent reading, and clear writing? Baker deserves credit that it produces students with these skills.

 I do not want to suggest that professional education is a bad thing. It is not. Our country needs more engineers, teachers, social workers and commercial artists. But we also need more people with broad educational backgrounds who can communicate well. We need university graduates who can speak multiple languages and who understand foreign cultures. The liberal arts curriculum produces such people. And small liberal arts colleges like Baker often do this best.