The Value of Liberal Arts Courses

I was a liberal arts major at Penn State University. I graduated from the College of Arts and Architecture. Although my major was Music History and Literature, there were lots of other liberal arts courses enhancing my music-specific classes. I credit these courses for stretching my understanding of the world around me.

Today, many students (and especially their parents) are strongly focused on what’s known as “pre-professionalism.” That is, they want to take the shortest trip between high school and a solid job that pays well and offers hope for a lifetime career. The road they prefer to take through college to arrive at that preferred destination should be, they hope, filled with practical, hands-on courses that apply directly to the desired work’s skills. So what should we think of those courses that fall outside of the pre-professional category, the ones that don’t instill hands-on skills?

I’m talking about so-called “core curriculum” courses. What is a core curriculum and why do colleges require their students to take those courses?

I did some research on this question and found a very informative presentation relating to this on the Colgate University site. I like their perspective on liberal arts courses:

Colgate’s Core program is a defining feature of its liberal arts curriculum. The Core Curriculum at Colgate takes seriously the faculty’s mission to engage students in the fullness of a liberal arts education: to learn, reflect, and live with an expanding awareness of one’s responsibility to self, community, and the larger world. As such, Colgate’s Core Curriculum aims to prepare students for rich and fulfilling lives in a context of rapid change here and around the globe.

liberal arts courses

I love this part: “to learn, reflect, and live with an expanding awareness of one’s responsibility to self, community, and the larger world. As such, Colgate’s Core Curriculum aims to prepare students for rich and fulfilling lives in a context of rapid change here and around the globe.”

In thinking back on my traversal of liberal arts courses, several come to mind:

The History of Art (known affectionately as “Art in The Dark”) vastly expanded my knowledge and appreciation of painting and sculpture, among other stunning creations, such as staircases, architectural details, and that wonderful term describing Rembrandt’s (and others’) portrayal of light and dark: chiaroscuro. (In fact, I just used that term in a conversation with my friends last week. They were mightily impressed!)

History and Archeology of South-Central America. That sounds like a real snoozer, but I learned an enormous amount about that region, some of which I have also used to sound knowledgeable.

The Short Story. This English course set me on track for a lifetime of reading quality literature. D.H Lawrence, James Thurber, and the like gave me words and circumstances that I have referenced frequently across the arc of my life. Walter Mitty and a certain horse dealer’s daughter taught me both about fantasy and life, just to mention two among a large crowd of characters.

Using Colgate’s list as a prime example of a quality liberal arts core, then, what kinds of courses might you encounter and what are they about? Here’s are 10 from Colgate’s very long list:

Legacies of the Ancient World: This course, taught by an interdisciplinary staff, explores texts from the ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern world that have given rise to some of the philosophical, political, religious, and artistic traditions associated with “The West.” …

Energy and Sustainability: … This class focuses on energy use as the impediment to sustainability that will probably have the greatest impact on American lifestyle in coming years … The focus is on energy use in the home, with students completing a class project in which they measure energy use in a house in Hamilton and determine how it could be powered from sustainable energy sources …

Fundamental Quests in Science: From Subatomic to Cosmological: Where are we? What are we made of? How do we know? These are fundamental questions in science. This course explores these questions via several topics of much research in science today. It looks at fundamental questions at the cosmological scale, like the big bang, the structure of the universe, birth and death of stars, and the nature of black holes; and then inward to fundamental questions in the subatomic world, made up of baryons, mesons, leptons, and quarks …

The Science and Potential Implications of Nanotechnology: Imagine repairing your body without surgery and no longer burning fossil fuels. Imagine enjoying abundance with no manufacturing costs and taking an elevator to the moon … This course provides an introduction to the science and potential implications of molecular nanotechnology. Scientific and sensationalist visions of nanotechnology are critically examined through a combination of readings, lectures, discussions, and presentations …

The Science of Art: How have scientific and technological innovations influenced works of art, artistic expression, and media? Conversely, has artistic expression fueled the technological development of artistic medium? How are scientific methods used to determine the age and authenticity of works of art? Students explore the science of light and color, the chemistry of pigments and their binders, and the material science and history of art media …

Brains and Tongues: How Do We Acquire Language?: This course explores how infants and adults acquire native and foreign languages. What goes on in the brains of new-born infants before they discover the meanings of words? What might be the linguistic and social consequence of acquiring an English dialectal accent, distinguishing or not distinguishing between Mary, merry, and marry? Why do some adults succeed in learning a second language, while others do not? …

Technologies for Electronic Commerce: The explosive growth of the Internet has fundamentally changed how business is conducted. Many of the online services that people use every day rely on important technological advances that motivate and support their success. This course introduces students to the computer science that drives electronic commerce and its consequences for society …

From the Atkins Diet to the Kyoto Treaty: Science, the News Media, and You: … This course dissects the forces that control perception of scientific news and provides strategies for obtaining more detailed information. The course comprises a series of self-contained units that each focus on a single issue and may include such disparate topics as the Atkins diet, the Kyoto Protocol, nanotechnology, the human genome project, and space exploration, as well as some of the students’ choosing …

The Psychology of Oppression: The United States was founded on the proposition that “all men are created equal.” Nevertheless, over 200 years later, systematic disparities in economic, social, and physical well-being still exist between Whites and people of color and between men and women. This course explores psychological influences that contribute to prejudice and oppression by majority groups, and how the experience of prejudice and oppression can shape the psychology of minority groups …

The (Ir)rationality of Everyday Decisions: For a long time, economics has assumed that individuals are perfectly rational in the sense that they are able to process an unlimited amount of information, make complex decisions, and predict future outcomes. The finding of a significant set of anomalies has prompted economists to seek for explanations outside of the perfect rationality model. The emerging field of behavioral economics is the result of relaxing the assumption of perfect rationality in modeling individual decision making. The course provides students the opportunity to think about their own decision-making process, compare it to what has been found in the literature, and then apply this knowledge to the application of the scientific method to examine a hypothesis of their own …

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These courses sound intriguing, so much so that I wish I could go back and retrace my college days. If so, I would choose a whole new fun path through my liberal arts electives.

The point here is to show you that despite how it may appear to you as you enter your college years, there really is a plan in place to try to give you a balanced “higher” education. I often wonder how much less rich my life would have been without the benefit of all those core liberal arts courses that were required of me.

Naturally, some of you may view studying the archeology of South-Central America to be completely irrelevant to your life. However, you never know what oblique connection knowledge from a course like that may have to something important to you later in your life.

Just imagine being at a cocktail party with your new boss and someone comments on the popcorn put out by the host. With great confidence, you hold up one of the popped kernels and say, “Did you know that some of the oldest known corncobs, husks, stalks and tassels, dating from 6,700 to 3,000 years ago were found at Paredones and Huaca Prieta, two mound sites on Peru’s arid northern coast? Imagine. There was popcorn almost 7,000 years ago!”

You’ll be the instant life of the party … all due to your comprehensive liberal arts core courses.

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