Liberal arts education provides students with skills applicable beyond professional pursuits

by Erica Buonanno and Parker Richards | 2/5/15 10:29pm

Dartmouth University or Dartmouth College: a debate that is almost as old as the school itself.

In the early 19th century, the state of New Hampshire attempted to make the College into a state school, establishing a public institution named Dartmouth University alongside the College. This action led to the famed 1819 Dartmouth v. Woodward case in which the Supreme Court decided that the state could not unilaterally alter the College’s charter to create a public institution. Though Dartmouth’s status as a private institution has long been settled, a firm decision on the school’s name has yet to be reached. Just last summer, the strategic planning advisory committee recommended that Dartmouth replace “College” with “University.”

The battle over the school’s name has become representative of a larger struggle for the soul of Dartmouth. The tension lies in the College’s desire to balance placing students in high-paying careers fields with ensuring its students are well-rounded individuals.

Professors, alumni and students expressed many ways in which the value of a liberal arts education is manifested.

The skills alumni acquire at the College are highly useful in the job market, economics professor Bruce Sacerdote, who was also a member of the Class of 1990, said.

“The labor market is telling us that [a Dartmouth degree] is a super valuable thing,” he said.

Beyond name recognition, Sacerdote said that Dartmouth gives its graduates problem solving skills, intellectual curiosity and the ability to interact with their communities. Even more importantly, Dartmouth alumni — or at least those who Sacerdote has worked with — are happy, he said.

From their liberal arts education, Dartmouth students develop “both analytic and synthetic ways of thinking,” Dimitri Gerakeris ’69 said. Gerakeris is the advisor to Beta Alpha Omega fraternity and former president of both Beta Alpha Omega’s predecessor, Beta Theta Pi, and the Inter-Fraternity Council.

A major debate in higher education today revolves around the very idea of a liberal arts education.

William Deresiewicz, former English professor at Yale University who wrote the 2014 bestseller “Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life” and a 2014 feature in The New Republic entitled “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League” that was shared almost 200,000 times on Facebook, said that for the past 30 to 40 years, the predominant philosophy in American higher education has been one of technical, career-focused education first and liberal arts education second.

“What’s changing is what we expect from education, and I think it’s changing in a bad way,” he said. “So much of this conversation is being driven by this idea that the purpose of education is to produce workers. I reject that, and we have historically rejected that idea in this country.”

Traditionally, the main purpose of a liberal arts education was not on career advancement or technical skills, but on the development of the “autonomous self,” a thoughtful, well-rounded person, Deresiewicz said. He classified America’s leadership class as “excellent sheep — they’re narrowly technocratic, loyal only to their own ambition, they have no vision, they’re intellectually undernourished, they’re risk-averse and they’re doing a terrible job,” he said.

While the fundamental basis of the liberal arts — humanities, social sciences and physical sciences — are not any less valuable today, the focus of educating for a career is seriously harming America’s business, intellectual and civic leadership, he said.

Deresiewicz’s call to return to liberal arts education is based upon the premise that those who study the liberal arts are more well-rounded than their peers in career-track schools.

“Liberal arts are fields were knowledge is pursued for its own sake,” Deresiewicz added.

For instance, Deresiewicz criticized economics majors who are more focused on securing a career than in studying what has been dubbed “the dismal science” for the sake of learning.

“Strictly speaking, economics is a liberal art, but the way in which students approach it when they major in it, they do it because they think it’s going to get them a job,” he said.

While not all students may be attracted to economics for its return on investment, the major has been the most popular degree for the past several years, according to the Dartmouth’s fact book. In general, the number of mathematics, economics and engineering majors — all disciplines with high perceived employability rates — have risen, indicating a slight but noticeable change in student direction over the past few years. The number of students majoring in computer science from 2010-2013 averaged 22. However, this number dramatically increased to 51 in the Class of 2014.

PayScale — a web-based company that aggregates information about salaries — ranked Dartmouth 44th on its list of colleges with the highest alumni salaries. Dartmouth graduates reported an average early career salary of $55,500, and an average mid-career salary of $104,700, according to PayScale. Dartmouth’s ranking was 25th when technical schools, engineering schools and military schools were removed.

PayScale also indexes colleges based upon their “return on investment,” which is calculated by subtracting a college’s net price -— the cost of attendance minus financial aid received — from the average amount graduates can expect to earn above what they would have earned had they not attended that institution.

Dartmouth ranked ninth overall on the list when financial aid is taken into account and was third amongst liberal arts-based institutions, behind Stanford University and Princeton University.

Students have mixed opinions on the tension between the benefits of pre-professional and interdisciplinary education.

“I personally emphasized being well-rounded in high school, but I’m now realizing that to get a job these days you need depth and not breadth,” Abigail Chen ’17 said. “So really [a liberal arts education] may not be the most important thing.”

Student body president Casey Dennis ‘15 said that he believes that the College can improve its graduates’ pre-professional skill set, but such education should occur outside the classroom.

“I would say there are steps that Dartmouth can take to offer more practical skill, but I think there’s an opportunity for this to be added extracurricularly,” Dennis said. “I think that the skills that a liberal arts degree offers does pay off in jobs, and I think it’s amazing that we have the opportunity to explore so many different courses.”

The skills that a liberal arts degree offers will help students after graduation, Dennis added. He said that he thinks it is important that students have the opportunity to study different disciplines rather than taking a “laundry list” of classes for a particular major.

Student Assembly vice president Frank Cunningham ’16 said that the current societal progress being made throughout the United States emphasizes the importance of a liberal arts education.

“I think it’s something a lot of students play down, however it teaches you to think, break down a problem and figure out what is really happening here,” he said. “Once you go into a specific program, you’re so focused and narrow, and that is not what these four years are supposed to do.”

Cunningham added that because of the quarter system, students have the ability to switch from different types of classes while maintaining a liberal arts thought process, which is similar to what graduates will experience in their career fields.

Yerin Yang ’17, an international student from South Korea, said Dartmouth’s emphasis on the liberal arts drew her to the College as she would have been forced to choose a major straight out of high school in Korea.

“I really felt like I didn’t learn a lot of things I was potentially interested in during high school, like psychology and ecology,” she said. Yang added that some of the Dartmouth classes she took at “random” were some of her favorites, and would not have been offered at a Korean University.

Colombian exchange student Juan Torres ’17 said that he appreciates that the College’s liberal arts focus because it allows him more freedom in deciding classes. In Colombia, he would have received a “map of courses” that every student would have to take each semester.

A liberal arts education is essential to creating graduates who are conversant with different cultures and backgrounds, Harvard Law School director Robert Bardone ’94 wrote in an email.

Bardone said that the liberal arts education is critical. As technology increasingly connects the world, leaders must have broad educations which expose them to the many disciplines, he added.

Cornell University lecturer Melissa Grout Smith ’87 echoed Bardone in saying that to become truly well educated, people need to have the ability to think critically across disciplines, not just about their own specialty.

At Dartmouth, Grout-Smith said that she was exposed to “bigger ideas” and given confidence from professors outside her primary area of study to “expand her horizons.”

Smith discourages her children from attending undergraduate research universities because it’s important to learn more than just technical training, she said.

Dean of the Faculty Michael Matsanduno said that a liberal arts education is integral. No one can accurately predict the exact skills they will need during the course of their life, he said, and the well-roundedness of the liberal arts education prepares individuals for the real world.

Matsanduno added that new technologies and developments provoke necessary changes in traditional liberal arts education, but the mission — and core — of that education remains largely the same.

Mary Aselton Budd, who was a member of the Class of 1991, said that the College prepares students to be versatile and nimble, valuable skills which will help students pave their way in the world.

“It’s not a job training program, per se,” she said. “[Dartmouth] prepares kids to succeed in life.”

Aside from the academic emphasis on the liberal arts, other aspects of the College contribute to the utility of a Dartmouth degree.

Certain parts of the D-Plan prepare us for relationships in the real world more than the semester system, Prodhi Manisha ’17 wrote in an email.

Manisha wrote that after college, people usually don’t exist in the same physical sphere, and maintaining relationships requires effort and commitment.

Manisha added that the D-Plan reflects this aspect of the real-world accurately, whereas with the semester system, people usually stay in close proximity for all four years. Relationships hardly ever get to acquire the ability to function across physical distances until after graduation, they wrote.

Gerakeris said that the College’s “very open type of Greek system” contributes to the development of its students.

Greek life, he said, can help students develop management and interpersonal skills outside the classroom and can promote intellectual growth in ways that might not otherwise be possible.

Gerakeris warned, however, against a culture of binge drinking that can harm intellectual development.

“If you’re playing pong four nights a week, you’re not getting out of Dartmouth what it has to offer — there’s just no way,” he said.

Additionally, Gerakeris said that the utility of a Dartmouth education is also individualized.

“That’s the way life is: you have to prioritize and decide what’s most important to you,” he said. “So I don’t think there are two people who have ever had the same Dartmouth experience.”

Bordone wrote that the College’s small population allowed him to realize the importance of making an impact in his community.

Because the amount of students enrolled is relatively small, individual initiative and action matter on campus, he wrote. He added that he thinks if students bring this realization into the real world, they can become profound agents of change in their own lives, as well as the lives of their friends and family.

Mastanduro said the College’s liberal arts focus is important, and that the enduring quality of the Dartmouth education is its ability to prepare generation after generation of people to be leaders in various fields.

Cunningham emphasized that while communities may have a “whole host of issues,” members share the experience of trying to improve them.

“You still are connected by that one thing that you and everyone has shared and that’s the fact that we all live in Hanover, New Hampshire and we all go to this amazing school,” he said.

Jessica Tong ’17 also said that the inter-connectedness of the study body is a significant part of the Dartmouth experience.

“I know that the Dartmouth experience also allows us to share the same emotions,” Tong said. “We share the childish fun of a midnight snowball fight and we share the same pain when we first taste the reality of binge drinking, sexual assault and emotional stress.”