Liberal arts means diversity not specialization

One of the first questions I ask every time I meet somebody at Linfield always relates to our respective majors. Always happens. And then we always explain how we got here.

I recently experienced this with a student and was shocked by how candid he was about his Linfield experience.
“I hate all the stupid general ed. requirements,” he said. “I just want to get into my major and spend four years doing that.”

I politely agreed while silently shaking my head.

Friend, you made an odd choice somewhere along the way. You came to a liberal arts college. That specialized degree track you want? You can find it at a state school for half the cost.

Most people don’t come to liberal arts colleges looking for a specialized degree, and if they do, they likely wind up frustrated with the curriculum, like my friend did.

Liberal arts colleges are designed to bring together many types of learning and wrap them in a neat, little bow while promoting critical thinking and the viewpoint that success is tied to the individual.

Majors don’t even make up a third of the credits needed to graduate. They’re emphasized in the context of your greater education. This is, effectively, the opposite of specialization.

I’m not just pointing at the sciences when I mention specialization. Even the arts can be specialized to prepare one for the rigors of post-college. The result is programs designed exclusively for graduate study and the working world.

But the liberal arts aren’t designed for direct integration into a career, and they aren’t designed to guarantee success in our woeful job market. They’re designed to give an individual a comprehensive and thorough examination of the world and the tools needed to continually succeed wherever they go by emphasizing individual development, independent action, reasoned thinking and analysis of all things within context and perspective.

We all made a choice when we came to Linfield that we’d rather forgo some of that specialization in favor of becoming better overall human beings.

Teaching majors are asked to go explore the scientific world, math majors get pushed into philosophy and political science majors paint murals in an artistic setting. We all came here with the understanding that the goals of the school would reflect a philosophy of continued learning and critical thinking.

Well, at least, that was my understanding. My friend convinced me that many people are here for some form of specialization, which astounds me.

One would hope people would be a little smarter than that. Why go to a liberal arts college if you don’t want a liberal arts education? I usually comfort myself with the knowledge that, in the end, they’ll get subjected to something they haven’t had any experience in, and Linfield will help morph them into a more complete human being.

But in truth, how close is that to reality? Our curriculum has more loopholes than our housing system. It makes me wonder: When so many students are able to circumvent the core of the liberal arts curriculum — those classes focused on self-discovery and the individual — how close are we to a real liberal arts education?

Are other colleges promoting a liberal arts education while allowing easy opt-out options for those students who don’t wish to gain any insight in the world beyond their own major? Having students completely ignore or avoid the liberal arts aspect of Linfield should be troubling to the college and to the students.

A greater consistency needs to be met. The college needs to work to realign it’s curriculum with its goals. For starters, there needs to be more stringent requirements within the areas of inquiry and a greater focus on diversity in class choices. We aren’t some specialized university; this school is about learning and thinking as an individual through all paths in life.

Matt Olson/Columnist

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