Verbum Ultimum: In Defense of the Liberal Arts
Now more than ever, the liberal arts are critical in setting students up for success.
This editorial is featured in the 2022 Green Key special issue.
What are the liberal arts? Possibly more importantly, why should it matter if we are a liberal arts college these days? These questions strike at the heart of Dartmouth’s identity, but the answers will not be found in the long-winded platitudes on department websites or in any admissions brochure.
In its most common understanding, a liberal arts education means students are given the freedom to explore academically. Unlike at a normal research university, you don’t have to commit right away to specializing in one particular topic or field. Not only does learning about a variety of subjects make you more interesting to sit next to at dinner parties, but also, in theory, you will feel more confident in your choice of study once you have explored all possible options. But surely there are more benefits to a Dartmouth education than acquiring small talk skills and selecting from a wide range of course offerings.
For students to pay tens of thousands of dollars in tuition each year, there must be more to the liberal arts. So much ink has been spilled — attacking and defending the merits of a liberal arts education in national publications — dedicated to this exact idea. In fact, a liberal arts education, such as that found at Dartmouth, has a uniquely formative role in the lives of its graduates; its duty is to grow and cultivate a conscience in its alumni through a thought-provoking, balanced curriculum. The challenge Dartmouth faces now is to perform this role continuously throughout the decades, despite the shifting inclinations of its students to specialize in one field or another.
Dartmouth is no stranger to the evolution of a much-valued tradition. As other pieces in this issue will attest, the spirit of Green Key has changed significantly over the years. A similar shift in the spirit of the College is underway now — as oftentimes, students gear their academic pursuits towards fields that they expect will return the most on their investment. Students frequently hear that if they pick an “employable” major, they will be able to pay off any debt they accrue in the process. This mindset is nothing new. In 1980, with debts rising in response to increasingly common student loans, business became the most popular college major in America. As total tuition costs approach nearly one hundred thousand dollars per year, calls for students to pursue employability and specialization will only grow louder.
This evolution in student preferences is hardly a painless one. As Dartmouth moves to embrace some technical sciences, other fields have been left behind. In 2021, The College disbanded the education department and closed both the Kresge Physical Sciences Library and the Paddock Music Library without consulting a single science or music professor. Different programs move in and out of the limelight, and this is not always a peaceful transition of power. But our increasing collective fondness for the “employable” majors need not shut down the capacity for insight that ought to be the hallmark of a Dartmouth graduate.
The humanities, with their penchant for pondering difficult questions, have long appeared to be the natural ally of the liberal arts. But as any sleep-deprived engineering major will tell you, the sciences are full of questions that are difficult in their own right. However, any debate over the suitability of a particular field for granting a liberal arts education is simply splitting hairs.
In an April 1955 article in The Atlantic, Dartmouth President John Sloan Dickey wrote that “the cause of liberal education will not be overrun by vocationalism if the College holds to its birthright and remains committed as a matter of purpose to serious concern with the issues of conscience.” Maintaining a commitment to this birthright lies at the heart of the liberal arts — and we are facing a critical moment in our history. These days, interest in computer science is ballooning, with demand more than doubling nationwide in the last decade. Look to the end of Tuck Drive, where the gleaming new Irving Institute reigns alongside the Class of 1982 Engineering and Computer Science Center.
Dartmouth’s challenge, then, is to ensure its students can think for themselves when they enter the world. First implemented in 1994, our distributive requirements are the latest permutation in a long line of ways the College encourages Dartmouth students to engage with a varied host of topics and questions. Dickey introduced the “Great Issues” courses for seniors, in which they grappled with the issues facing their country and the world. Today, the Dickey Center for International Understanding continues Dickey’s mission by instilling in Dartmouth students an understanding of the world’s troubles and a commitment to do something about them.
Our lives do not take place in a vacuum — they have rippling impacts on the world, and all graduates should understand the role they will play in it. Engineering majors may gripe about the philosophy class they have to take in order to graduate — or vice versa — but this exposure is doing them a valuable service. Learning from peers and professors with different values and backgrounds expands your intellectual horizons and forces you to consider other perspectives. A software engineer who has debated in class the meaning of “good” according to Aristotle’s dialogues is probably less likely to code the Terminator than one who has not.
Dartmouth’s Call to Lead campaign professes that “today, more than ever, the world needs energetic, broadly educated leaders who can identify and analyze problems, develop solutions, and act,” with emphasis placed on “broadly educated leaders.” Success does not come from being an Excel whiz or Powerpoint prodigy. It is far more likely to come from learning to think critically and to explore beyond the limits of established knowledge. Dartmouth’s liberal arts education must plant the seeds for a student to become a lifelong learner, one that is comfortable with ambiguity and able to reach conclusions after thoroughly interrogating the information before them. Only then will students have the breadth and depth of perspective that it takes to prosper and to do good.
It’s not only Dartmouth’s presidents who have much to say about the development of well-rounded human beings. In his 2014 book “Beyond the University,” Wesleyan University President Michael Roth wrote that “education is for human development, human freedom, not the molding of an individual into a being who can perform a particular task. That would be slavery.” As Dartmouth invests in the technical sciences, it must take care that its engineers and computer scientists — as well as the rest of its students — graduate not only technically competent, but morally and intellectually curious, too. Disciples of the sciences can and should receive just as rigorous a liberal arts education as their compatriots in the humanities. But it is only possible if Dartmouth reaffirms its responsibility to ensure its graduates leave with the seeds of a well-formed conscience sprouting in their minds.