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Why Texas Needs the Liberal Arts

Editorial in the November 24, 2005, issue of the Austin American-Statesman.

Ask a student at one of Texas’ public or private universities if they want to be rich and most would probably answer in the affirmative. Likewise, they would assume that “being rich” refers to personal wealth measured in financial terms. However, all of us - whether we acknowledge it or not - desire to be rich in other ways. We yearn to explore the unknown: other cultures, the meaning of life, languages different from our native tongue, art and music that lift the spirit in ways we cannot easily describe. 

We want to understand the richness of life, not just a life lived for riches. This is why Texas needs the liberal arts. While they often don’t get as much attention as our larger state schools, Texas has several outstanding liberal arts colleges, including two that make U.S. News & World Report’s list of the country’s top 100 liberal arts colleges - Southwestern University in Georgetown and Austin College in Sherman. 

Their mission is to open minds, open hearts, and prepare students for an ever-changing global community. Students at these colleges explore the diversity of ideas found in the natural sciences, the social sciences, humanities, and the fine and performing arts. They leave their alma maters prepared to ask the important questions of human existence for the rest of their lives. What could be more valuable than this? 

Many liberal arts colleges are working hard to make their programs relevant to the 21st century. Southwestern University, for example, has started a program it calls the Paideia(R) (“pie-DAY-uh”) Program, which draws its name from the Greek word meaning “sum total of one’s education.” In addition to a rigorous academic program, students who choose to participate in this program will have engaged in an intercultural experience, a service-learning experience, a leadership experience and a collaborative research experience by the time they graduate. Faculty members work with small groups of students over the course of three years to help them relate their classroom learning to their experiences outside the classroom.

Some might ask about jobs after graduation. At Southwestern University, where I serve as president, 90 percent of our students have jobs or have been accepted into graduate or professional schools within eight months of graduation. At a recent meeting of our Board of Visitors, which serves as an advisory group to me, several members talked about how important a liberal arts education is for preparing students for success in today’s business world. Among them was Henry Joyner, senior vice president for planning at AMR Corp., the parent company of American Airlines. 

“Although traditional business graduates get a lot of focus from many hiring companies, a liberal arts education provides a unique foundation for students faced with competing in a global business environment.” Joyner said. “Liberal arts majors are often more comfortable solving unstructured problems, experienced with critical thinking and tend to have better communication skills than many of their peers.” 

Stanley Hauerwas, who was named “Theologian of the Year” by Time magazine in 2001, added that liberal arts colleges can play a valuable role in producing graduates who are well-grounded in ethics. 

Last month, for example, students from Southwestern and 16 other private colleges in Texas traveled to Fort Worth to compete in Ethics Match 2005 sponsored by the Texas Independent College Fund. The students engaged in hour-long debates on timely, controversial business ethics issues such as drug marketing, insider trading, truth in advertising, employee theft and sales practices. 

Companies coming to our campus to recruit students continually tell us that the degrees students earn are not nearly as important as the skills they bring to bear on a job. Because liberal arts graduates have a large range of skills, they are very much in demand. 

The moral of the story? You can have it all. You can explore the riches provided by a liberal arts education, and you can flourish in today’s world. Why not make a good living and be prepared for a richer life as well? It’s a good question to ponder with the yearly college visit season upon us. 

Jake B. Schrum is president of Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas.