The ability to negotiate quickly and even unconsciously between conceptual and practical action is embedded in the distinctive education provided by the liberal arts.
By James A. Parente, Jr., Dean
Photo by Lisa Miller
The liberal arts are once again at the center of the national discussion of American higher education.
During the month of June, arts and humanities faculty at Harvard publicized Mapping the Future, an investigation of current teaching in the humanities in the face of waning student interest. A few weeks later, the long-anticipated study of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences, commissioned by a bipartisan congressional group, presented a compelling case for the foundational role of the humanities and social sciences in training the knowledgeable global citizens of the 21st century.
Underlying both reports is the anxiety that the arts, humanities, and social sciences are underfunded and endangered, and that the welfare of our society is consequently at risk. Both documents are clarion calls to action: scholars are enjoined to present the arts and humanities in ways that engage undergraduates thirsting for a broad training in the humanistic fields, and politicians are reminded that the liberal arts are essential for the future well-being of our society.
It is unfortunate that the humanities and social sciences find themselves in continual need of apologists. Part of this "crisis" arises from the current emphasis on STEM (science, technology, and mathematics) in the public conversation, and part from a lack of understanding of the ways in which the humanities and social sciences can help resolve the big challenges of our time -- social inequality, poverty, environmental degradation, economic decline. Part is due to the understandable concern about whether arts and humanities majors can find stable employment, and part to the perception that research and teaching in the humanities and social sciences may have little relevance to today's undergraduates.
Such concerns are reasonable, and we in the academy have the responsibility to articulate clearly why we believe the humanities and social sciences are central to American higher education. I invite alumni and friends to help; I have heard repeatedly
from many CLA graduates how invaluable their liberal arts education has been to the fashioning of their careers.
The articles in this issue present ample evidence of the value of the liberal arts. Indeed,
our focus on agility and creativity make abundantly plain the ways in which a liberal arts
education prepares undergraduates for the future. Agility -- the ability to negotiate quickly and even unconsciously between conceptual and practical action -- is embedded in the distinctive education provided by the liberal arts. The liberal arts tack repeatedly
between theoretical and practical training: one learns, for example, not only about the nature of justice, but also about how best to argue for justice. One can study diverse approaches to pressing socio-economic issues -- and acquire the skills to communicate them in a second language. One can make art about the ill effects of climate change on the biosphere -- and formulate solutions to staunch further harm. The ability to formulate judgments, occasionally with conflicting and incomplete information, and to take action grounded in principles, knowledge, and experience is the hallmark of a liberal arts graduate; these are characteristics many employers desire and other nations seek to emulate.
As you may know, I am stepping down as dean of the College of Liberal Arts to return to research and teaching in the Department of German, Scandinavian, and Dutch. It has been a privilege to serve as dean and to learn from our faculty, students, alumni, and friends about the diversity that comprises the liberal arts. As we continue to work together to promote the arts, humanities, and social sciences, we should never lose sight of the excitement of connecting these areas to other spheres of knowledge. It is not the liberal arts versus STEM, or the humanities at odds with the social sciences. Instead, in practicing the agility of a liberal arts education, we should remain mindful of the interconnections between all disciplines and the ways in which each of them illuminates the other.