Liberal arts still relevant

March 7, 2012


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.

— Mike Hoeflich, a distinguished professor in the Kansas University School of Law, writes a regular column for the Journal-World.


Paul R Getto 5 years ago

"These days, the “liberal arts” and especially the humanities are under attack." === Good point. We forget our traditions and need to remember the 'liberal arts' are what freed us from the Church's iron grip centuries ago when Europe began to (reluctantly) allow scientific thought again. These 'arts' created much of our modern society and many of the benefits we enjoy. Good column, sir.

cato_the_elder 5 years ago

Made_in_China, I agree that this is a timely, well-written column. I especially agree with the overwhelming importance of the Liberal Arts to a well-rounded education.

However, I'll bet you won't agree with me that schools of education should be abolished, with the foundation for a teaching certificate being instead a rigorous liberal arts degree with no more than one semester of post-graduate training on the procedural aspects of teaching. That's where the rubber meets the road, and it's also where the public education industry today fails to cross the finish line.

Paul R Getto 5 years ago

In a sense, I agree with you. Academic rigor is important, but pedagogy is real and teachers must understand children, development and the brain if they are to be effective. Academic knowledge without pedagogical knowledge will not bring us to the promised land. Teaching is not just presenting. If it were, we could drop the entire enterprise now and either hook people up to the Internet or just mail packets of information to their homes and just test them when they are 18 to see if they qualify for a diploma. This is (perhaps with the exception of FHNC's usual 'contribution') actually a discussion of real issues. Good job.

overthemoon 5 years ago

So. You didn't benefit from a liberal arts education in critical thinking I see.

overthemoon 5 years ago

(I think we have a perfect example of private behavior being regulated through poor education)

parrothead8 5 years ago

I like how you attack the writer's character, but produce no actual facts telling us how he may be wrong. Cool argument, bro.

Mike Ford 5 years ago

it's so nice whan a person completely ignores the concept of developing an independant course of thought and deduction and goes for the lowest common denominator thought process of simpletons....labeling. I may not like this school for putting money before the respect of indigenous peoples and religious beliefs protected by federal law but in a previous time they created my father who got a scholarship from Duke University after graduating from Baker and attending St. Pauls School of Theology and became a minister for almost 40 years attending a Bonhoeffer symposium in Stockholm this summer. Maybe math or flasehope wants a college in the middle of nowhere where the made up facts of palin, bachmann, the scopes monkey trial nonsense, and the intelligent design malarkey can have equal footinh creating dimwits who get trounced in the worldwide competition to intellectually get ahead.

overthemoon 5 years ago

Agree completely. However, I do not see why we can't provide a stronger basis in liberal arts (ie interdisciplinary studies that favor writing, reasoning and critical thinking and communication skills.) in our high schools. The need for most students to take remedial writing and math courses upon entry into colleges and universities is a travesty. Anyone, no matter what their career or educational goals, benefits from an applicable understanding of history, language, geography, etc etc.

Paul R Getto 5 years ago

+1 Part of the problem is time. The same people who regularly bash schools in the legislatures routinely pass new laws to make schools solve more and more of society's problems. We also have too short a day and too short a year. Schools should be open 10-12 hours a day all year long. Everyone won't be there all the time and lots of community volunteers are needed to pick up the slack, but you are right, we are not helping people learn how to think, research, read and write well. The Internet and this award-winning newspaper prove that every day, particularly in some of the bloggers' comments. Spelling still does count: For example, the sandwich shop owner who went out of business because he sold "Filly Steaks."

bad_dog 5 years ago

Did the "Filly Steaks" contain horse meat?

Paul R Getto 5 years ago

Probably not, but the spelling killed him.

Cant_have_it_both_ways 5 years ago

I remember a Liberal Arts degree as something you were given after you have paid your money, but could not cut your major.

asixbury 5 years ago

Yeah, that degree is an option, but it is chosen just like any other degree is. It's not handed out simply because you can't cut it in your field.

bcavetx 5 years ago

You are confusing a liberal arts degree with a liberal arts education. A liberal arts education is a requirement to study other disciplines outside of your degree program.

George Lippencott 5 years ago

I hope we are not advocating the demise of a liberal arts degree! For those who choose such a path the degree should be available.

That said I suspect some of the resistance comes from the increasing tendency to demand public support for those seeking the degree. It is one thing to pursue education for its own ends but quite another to demand that everyone else support your effort.

We provide twelve years of public education. Are we now arguing it should be extended to sixteen to twenty?

asixbury 5 years ago

Not true at all. I know this from my, my husband, and everyone I know who went to college with me's experience. It qualifies that student to get a career in their discipline, a similar discipline, or even one that has little to do with their specific degree. It does this by preparing the students in a multitude of areas and not focusing just on one specific ability. I, for example, received a Bachelor's of Art from a Liberal Arts school in Visual Art (painting). Even though I did not major in Business, I had enough experience with those classes (due to the liberal arts requirements) to be granted admission in a college's MBA program. I now have a successful career in the financial services industry. Even before I received this additional degree, I easily found work in the business field (such as an insurance agent, data-entry, bookkeeping, among others). I have seen the negative impact a bachelors from a non-liberal arts school has had on the graduate later in life. A friend of mine, for another example, got a very specialized degree from a non-liberal arts college. Now, that is the O N L Y career area he is able to find work in. It really limits his ability to find jobs, especially when the economy is down.

Paul R Getto 5 years ago

"Acedemia" (SIC) or flip burgers? Perhaps. If colleges are trade schools and their only value is to help people earn a "good income" we all have some talking to do. Persons who are interested in their souls, their minds and their hearts and maybe service to others should consider higher education no matter what degree they seek. Persons interested in high incomes should enter the technical trades or get one of those overseas military contractor jobs in the Middle East. They will have lots of money when they get back, if they survive. It is also interesting that most studies of the topic do not suggest that income and satisfaction with one's life are closely related. Money is good, but it won't buy you love, satisfaction or a happy life in a career you don't love. I've met some miserable attorneys and physicians who make a good salary, entered the profession because "my daddy was one too" and don't really look forward to the next day in the office.

parrothead8 5 years ago

Um, nice try. With my liberal arts degree, I've been able to keep up the skills necessary to compete in these changing times AND represent my skills well on paper. My profs trained me how to learn, and how to do it on my own.

Get rid of the liberal arts, and just train everybody to do one job really well. Then let's see where those people are when their industries become extinct due to changing technologies or suffering economies.

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