The Liberal Arts Are Alive and Well in Washington State

Working with educators across the state of Washington, I've helped to create an organization that many might consider an anachronism, a relic from a far simpler time. But that position, as common as it might be, is spectacularly wrong! Let me explain.

The organization is the Washington Consortium for the Liberal Arts (WaCLA) and it has adopted a mission statement as simple as it is clear: "The Washington Consortium for the Liberal Arts is an association of Washington state public and private higher education institutions, organizations and individuals promoting the value of a liberal arts education to the people and communities of the state."

At a time when so much attention on higher education, both in Washington and across the nation, seems to be on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), the WaCLA institutions have come together to ensure that our students are offered a broad education that will best serve students and communities of the 21st century. Please understand that none of us are opposed to STEM disciplines; in fact, we celebrate the sciences as an integral part of the liberal arts. But we also believe that broadly educated students, students who understand the nature of science as well as grasp the meaning in a piece of literature, students who are able to solve a quadratic equation as easily as they can engage in a conversation about the social value of an artistic performance, will be in the best position to successfully enter the workforce and be prepared to deal with the unforeseen challenges that will undoubtedly come their way in life.

But don't just take my word for this. The Association of American Colleges and Universities recently commissioned a study to determine the characteristics most in demand by employers. While the employers surveyed never explicitly mentioned the liberal arts, what they described characterizes the essence of a liberal arts education. They articulated their desire to hire employees who excel in four major areas:

• Knowledge of human cultures and the physical and natural world;
• Intellectual and practical skills including the ability to communicate effectively, to think critically and to solve complex problems;
• Personal and social responsibility including the ability to connect choices and actions to ethical decisions as well as being actively involved in one's community; and
• Integrative learning or the ability to apply knowledge and skills to real-world settings.

Employers aren't the only ones capable of explaining the value of a liberal arts education. The student winners of WaCLA's first annual liberal arts essay contest did a superb job of describing why educational breadth is so important. This contest, open to all students at WaCLA's 23 colleges and universities, asked entrants to discuss what it means to be liberally educated.

First-place winner Rebecca Korf, a student at Whitworth University, described her experience working at Olympic National Park on a project assessing the consequences of removing two century-old dams and the ensuing ecosystem restoration. She wrote:

"In the process, I met many scientific researchers and graduate students examining what was happening on the ground level. I began to see a disconnect. The graduate students, while highly knowledgeable about fluvial flumes and LIDAR, had difficulties communicating their findings. The rangers working in education, on the other hand, didn't have the training to understand what they were supposed to communicate. As a science major I had taken enough science classes to understand the science, but in addition my general education classes had given me the communication skills to explain these concepts to a general audience. I found myself working in between the two groups, bridging the communication and understanding gaps in an area of great scientific and cultural importance."

WaCLA's second-place winner, Eleanor Lutz from the University of Washington, entered college with the commitment to take a class in a new subject every quarter and described how this decision widened her world. "I was astonished at how much there was to know, as I learned about racial justice in Art History, epistemology in Philosophy, behavior in Neurobiology, modern wars in Political Science, and ASCII in Programming."

Eleanor went on to explain, "Without this eclectic mix of classes, I would never have found my passion for behavioral neurobiology, or realized that I find so much happiness in art education. A liberal arts education really is the best way to learn more about the world while in college, and consequently, to discover ourselves as people, students and community members."

She concluded by adding, "Although I started college believing that my 'extra classes every quarter' were merely a fun diversion, I realized that they weren't 'extras' after all. I was learning to solve important problems, to understand people from extremely diverse backgrounds, and to express my ideas in anything from writing to painting to HTML code. I was learning from the best teacher there is: a liberal arts education."

Some might find it surprising that WaCLA's two liberal arts essay contest winners are science students but that fact simply underscores the importance in today's society of being able to cross intellectual boundaries, of being able to know broadly and to communicate creatively.

The colleges and universities that make up the Washington Consortium for the Liberal Arts are committed to broadly educating students in ways that best serve society. They are committed to the value and transformative power of the liberal arts. And, as our essay contest has so well demonstrated, our students are acutely aware that their liberal arts education enables them to accomplish great things in their workplaces and communities.

A shorter version of this piece first appeared in the Tacoma News Tribune on 19 June 2013.