More Than Art for Art's Sake
All students at the University of Kentucky have to take multiple classes in the College of Arts and Sciences to fulfill their general education requirements.
But in today’s increasingly specialized world, some people question the practicality and benefits of classes in the liberal arts: sure, studying English is quaint, but unnecessary; history is a good hobby, but nothing more; a foreign language is interesting, but that’s all.
They beg the question, who needs the liberal arts?
Ask UK A&S graduates, however, and they will readily tell you that their education in the liberal arts greatly rewarded them both professionally and personally.
Their answer: everyone needs the liberal arts.
“Arts and Sciences offers the courses that are foundational for any educated person,” said Anna Bosch, associate dean for undergraduate programs in the College. “We teach courses that give students in any major a more detailed knowledge of the world around us.”
UK A&S graduate Vivian Shipley, now a Pulitzer Prize-nominated poet and distinguished professor at Connecticut State University, believes that the liberal arts are integral to the success of the educational process.
“When you’re at the university it’s important to learn how to learn. The traditional A&S core curriculum – literature, history, social sciences, art – these are all things that require thought process,” Shipley continued.
That is what makes the liberal arts so valuable: the cultivation of well-rounded skills that make it possible for students to think critically, communicate coherently and solve problems from different perspectives.
“A liberal arts education teaches people how to think differently and how to expand their minds,” explained Julia Burnett, executive senior sales director for Mary Kay and A&S graduate. “And once the mind is expanded, it can’t go back.”
But this foundational knowledge does more than make educated and capable students: it also reinforces practical qualities that translate into marketable skills in the job market.
“It’s vitally important for our candidates to have the ability to write, communicate and reason,” said Jim Elliott, A&S graduate and senior vice president with BB&T Private Financial Services in Lexington. Those capabilities, Elliott explains, are primarily found in students with education in the liberal arts.
Pointing to a recent study showing that average people will change jobs six to seven times throughout their lives, Shipley argues that today’s job market only increases the necessity and value of education in the liberal arts.
“When you [change jobs] you need a general set of skills and knowledge that make you able to adapt to changes and compete. The liberal arts are extremely important because they teach us how to think, how to problem-solve, how to be persuasive when writing and also verbally. These are traits that are important in many kinds of jobs,” she said.
The skills students learn in the liberal arts, then, make it possible for them to navigate the professional landscape with greater success.
“The people who are going to be successful are those folks that have the ability to see what’s happening and learn how to adapt to the changes that are now constant,” said Elliott. “The ability to adapt and to retrain yourself comes from those liberal arts classes.”
In an era of increased specialization, Elliott sees greater value in the wide variety of skills students cultivate through the liberal arts. “These courses don’t narrow you down in terms of subject matter, they actually encourage thinking much more broadly,” he said.
Shipley regrets that so many people go into college and only study one thing. She feels that this can cause real problems because the 20s are a period of uncertainty because of the continued development of the adult mind.
“It’s tragic when kids put themselves into one rigid mold, a specific kind of training that they can’t alter or get out of,” she said.
“Schools will just train you up and send you into the world to find a career,” Burnett observed. “The business world has shown me that those who are most successful are those who are more well-rounded human beings.”
“If we could have a firm foundation [through] a broad liberal arts education we could be much better served,” said Elliott. Being a college student, Bosch suggests, is not just about career training but instead preparation for living in the world and understanding how to confront its problems.
Shipley sees our specialized world as one that can obstruct communication, but argues that the liberal arts makes it possible to relate to others because of the common knowledge students learn. “There is also a pleasure factor to the liberal arts,” she explains. “It’s important for young people to take liberal arts classes so they can become aware of the practicality and also the pleasure in it.”
Burnett too finds great personal benefit as a result of her liberal arts education. “My education has raised my awareness of the world around me,” she said. “I deeply appreciate the opportunities put in front of me. Part of the reason I have been successful is because when I think about what others are facing I cannot be apathetic.”
The College of Arts and Sciences is planning a future course aimed at demonstrating on the benefits of a liberal arts education to new students. If these testimonies are any indication, the value of the liberal arts shouldn’t be too hard to communicate.
“We want to give students an overview of the approach that a liberal arts education gives you [in facing] important questions in the world,” Bosch explained.
“We’re very confident that liberal arts education can be the most beneficial for the future opportunities of our students.”