Tumultuous world issues need interdisciplinary approach: Liberal Arts education equips students with skills to succeed


Author: Donovan Dennis

Liberal arts colleges are elite. They are beautiful, tony, progressive, expensive — seemingly inaccessible. For many students, spending a sum equivalent to the price of a small home on college tuition and fees is a rite of passage. For others, it is an unimaginable feat reserved for the privileged few — an education for the wealthy, endowing useless degrees upon their progeny and training them in executive etiquette and philosophy with the hope that one day, their pampered youths will assume the helm of the family’s K Street firm. From outside the Campus Road gates, an Occidental education — and, more broadly, a liberal arts education — may seem wasteful for those focused on a rigid track from college to career. But in reality, a liberal arts education is an exercise in interdisciplinary critical thinking in a time when no one in America seems to be thinking critically.

Occidental defies many stereotypes associated with its selective and elite peer institutions. We are one of the most ethnically diverse private schools in the country; one of the most socioeconomically diverse institutions in the country; one of a shrinking number of schools still meeting 100 percent of students’ demonstrated financial needs; and we do so with a meager endowment compared to other liberal arts colleges. We are a model of providing access to a formerly-impregnable tier of education, and we do so in a time when the value of an Occidental education is continually called into question by policymakers interested in directing money away from higher education.

Aggressive attacks against liberal arts degrees have increased over the past decade. The 2008 recession and the tough post-graduation job market, coupled with the privilege a private liberal arts education inherently represents, thrust the liberal arts education into a critical spotlight, with many politicians — including former Occidental student President Barack Obama — publicly questioning the value of a liberal arts degree. Occidental, as a proprietor of these degrees, has not been spared the prodding of those critical of its methods.

The criticisms are typically variations on the theme of the intangibility of a liberal arts degree. When directed at students, this manifests itself as a question: What are you going to do with an art history major? Because the career track for art history majors appears more muddled than for, say, business, non-believers question its relevance. Those critical of our education question it because it is not industry-focused enough, and in doing so inherently misunderstand the goal of a liberal arts curriculum. Liberal arts colleges are not interested in training an accountant to crunch numbers, but instead hope to give them the skills to succeed and gain upward mobility in the workplace. It is the difference between teaching a person to fish and teaching them how to fish with a background in ecosystem management, the market for Alaskan wild salmon and the use of fish guts as fertilizer.

Nonetheless, the denunciation continues, much of it given weight, though not necessarily credibility, by politicians interested in directing education funding elsewhere. Irony can be found in the fact that those who deny climate change and whose siblings blindly invade foreign countries are calling for less critical thought, when everything from current geopolitical crises to the soft skills requested by graduate and medical schools underscore the necessity for interdisciplinary education.

As refugees inundate Europe seeking safety and shelter, country after country continues to shut out asylum-seekers. A tumultuous and violent Middle East, arguably rooted in the actions of the United States and Europe, has erupted, expelling millions who now find themselves at the doorstep of the European Union. To effectively work towards mitigating the crisis, agents acting on behalf of involved governments must be equipped with the historical context for the current crisis in the modern Middle East. Language skills, knowledge of oil-related environmental issues and a background in religious differences additionally aid in the effort to find peace or understanding. Negotiators would surely benefit from a seminar on the post-World War I Middle-Eastern mandate system. But arguably, educating the electorate on these issues is equally as important as educating the diplomats, because voters choose the politicians that determine U.S. foreign policy. For molding globally-minded students and voters, the importance of a liberal arts background is clear.

Perhaps not as obvious, though equally critical, is the importance of producing students in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines with backgrounds in the liberal arts. In labs, students are called on to think critically about the material and apply it to their discipline. But it is in the application of the material beyond laboratory-based classes that liberal arts colleges most benefit science students. Individual research projects, facilitated at Occidental through both the robust Undergraduate Research Center (URC) and the individual science departments, calls on these young researchers to apply critical thinking skills accentuated in both humanities and science classes to the research lab. Additionally, a background in the humanities sets science students from liberal arts colleges apart from their peers. In improving science students’ abilities to discuss and share their research, liberal arts degrees better equip researchers for grant proposals, scientific conferences and the publication of their work in both scientific journals and popular media. Whether moving on to graduate school or an industry-related position, the inclusion of these skills into the undergraduate curriculum adds to the high quality and autonomy of science students from liberal arts colleges.

Regardless of their discipline of study, four years at Occidental teaches students one lesson above all else: the importance of community. At a school of 2,000, the five degrees of separation are pared down to two, and through one friend or another, almost everybody knows everybody else. Students are connected to their peers, and are held responsible for the experience of their classmates, dorm-mates and others on our campus. In a larger college environment, peer education fails because students are disconnected across expansive campuses with greater student populations. But at Occidental, we are called on to have compassion for our fellow students and ensure a safe and inclusive environment for all; we are asked to respect each other; we are called to care. The dialogue that occurs on this campus cannot be replicated elsewhere, for it is only in an open-minded and outspoken community that we can learn to find our own voice.

The liberal arts philosophy for education may appear antiquated, out-of-touch and perhaps even irrelevant, but this method of interdisciplinary study demands a level of critical thought that transcends simple regurgitation of facts and touches on true knowledge. As Occidental students, we are called on to think about the world around us, how we are impacted by it and how we can improve upon it. Because of our small community, we engage in dialogue impossible elsewhere, learning about ourselves, our prejudices, our privileges and our collective dreams for improving the world. As scientists, diplomats, teachers and executives, we will apply these lessons learned and better understand the impact of our work because of our time at Occidental.

Donovan Dennis is a senior geology major. He can be reached at ddennis@oxy.edu.

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