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The Unsung Benefits of a Liberal Arts Education

Experts agree that the best college or university education is grounded in the liberal arts ‒ combining exposure and skills across a wide variety of disciplines, and often bringing these disciplines into conversation with each other. This type of education is essential for the development of engaged and productive citizens. It is also a worthy preparation for any and all careers. In fact, a recent study by the American Association of Colleges and Universities reveals liberal arts majors have not only closed the wage gap between themselves and “professional” majors, but “students who pursue their major within the context of a broad liberal education substantially increase their likelihood of achieving long-term professional success.” 

Preparation for careers is, of course, important. But equally important is a sense of responsibility and belonging to society. My 28 years of college and university teaching have shown me that graduates want to make a positive difference in their communities. No matter their major, graduates today seem to crave the sense of fulfillment that comes from making a contribution to the world in which we live.

That world is becoming more complex as it shrinks. Because technology brings us into contact with a wide variety of cultures, we need to be skilled in creating dialogue with each other. A liberal arts education broadens students’ horizons, fosters understanding and respect for cultural differences, and encourages students to see the importance of interdisciplinary and intercultural communication. 

A liberal arts education exposes students to music, art, literature and theatre, as well as math, business, and social and natural sciences. Our greatest creative minds were broadly educated in this way. Leonardo da Vinci, for instance, was not only a scientist and engineer, but also a skilled artist - a man who drafted flying machines that his peers couldn’t even imagine.

Besides sparking creativity and positive innovation, a liberal arts education exposes students to different ways of thinking and living in a respectful environment where critical questions and a quest for complicated answers spur dialogue rather than hatred. Indeed, such an education plants in students a desire for lifelong learning, a desire that will profit our rapidly developing world. As communication technology connects people across the globe in new ways, we need global citizens to come up with new answers to old questions ‒ How do we deal with climate change? What does it mean for a nation to “develop” in sustainable ways? How can we live in harmony with each other when we don’t believe in the same gods or aspire to the same “successes”?

Finally, at its best, a liberal arts education inspires in its students a valuable resource: empathy. It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine what might happen if politics, business, technology and science aren’t combined with empathy, critical thinking, creativity and a notion of global connection. We’ve already seen the destruction wrought by the atom bomb, concentration camps, and chemical and biological warfare.

In short, a liberal arts education is a priceless investment for any citizen of this democracy. It encourages critical and creative thinking, flexible approaches to problem-solving and forms the basis of our own St. Norbert College radical hospitality ‒ the ability to see the world through another’s eyes.

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