What practical value is there in liberal arts? Is there an inverse relationship between STEM subjects and liberal arts? What consequences are there for a nation which turns its back on liberal arts? These are a few of the questions tackled by Dr. Donald Morrill (Ph.D.) in this interview. Dr. Morrill spent a great deal of his life in pursuit of the liberal arts. He is now a teacher at the University of Tampa in addition to being a published author and poet. Full of profound insight and first-rate rhetoric, Dr. Morrill’s answers provide a unique glimpse into the world of education.
Do you, as an administrator at a University, see fewer students choosing to study liberal arts?
Fewer students are majoring in humanities these days, which is a cause for concern in higher education, at large. Many more students–hoping for better job prospects, given the current economic environment–are majoring in STEM fields (Science/Technology/Engineering/Math) though math and the sciences were always part of the traditional liberal arts.
It’s often said that liberal arts “teaches students how to think”, do you think this is true? If so, how did “learning how to think” influence your career?
I’ve had several careers over more than three decades in higher education—as a teacher, researcher, artist, program director, college administrator. And the skills below, all cultivated in a liberal arts education, been invaluable in helping me adapt to new challenges and embrace new opportunities.
- critical thinking, reading, writing, and research
- effective and intelligent communication
- broadened perspective, ability to examine issues from different points of view
- ability to think creatively
- ability to analyze and synthesize information
- ability to connect diverse ideas (and to connect text to experience) according to various conceptual frameworks and with a nuanced understanding of related theoretical and societal issues
- ability to rethink ideas from different perspectives, to identify nuances involved, and to interpret and draw conclusions (while addressing how these come about and what they imply)
The world changes and one changes. And you find yourself doing work you never imagined would be in your ken. The upshot is that if one can adapt, one can flourish. A student today will have many careers over the course of her work life.
What would you say to a young student who is afraid to get a degree in the liberal arts because they think they won’t be able to get a job?
I would say that education is not just about getting a livelihood but about having a rich, happy life—and all that entails.
I would add that you, the student, should look deeply into what enlivens and motivates you. Education never stops. The opportunity to learn is ever present, in every encounter. Your passions will lead you to the deepest learning. Education inspires one’s destiny.
“Only that day dawns to which we are awake,” writes Henry David Thoreau, in WALDEN. Education is about being awakened, being made aware. One’s path in life is changed by how and when one is awake to opportunity. No one truly knows what she can be, but one can strive to become, and discover thereby.
Liberal arts are about liberating one from “the mind-forged manacles,” as William Blake called them, created by the circumstances of one’s birth—making one able to live in more than one time and place, cosmopolitan in the deepest sense.
This, I would argue, is a profoundly practical aim.
You might take a look at the LEAP (Liberal Education and America’s Promise) initiative at AAC&U, a project that has been going on now for more than a decade. It will give you further insights into the benefits, personal and social, of a liberal education:
The motto–“Education for a World of Unscripted Problems” summarizes a great deal of the value of a liberal arts education.
There’s a growing cultural stigma against liberal arts. Many people view it as impractical, politicians (like President Obama and Rick Scott) want to defund government support of “art history majors”, what do you think caused this trend?
These are large-view political statements, made for particular political ends. Both of these people have liberals arts backgrounds, but their remarks do reflect a certain strain in American culture that goes all the back to the Enlightenment thinkers who founded the country.
Ben Franklin certainly embodied the values of practical learning, as did a figure like Jefferson—but neither of them would be the great figures they are without their vast liberal arts educations.
What disadvantages do you see coming about if we as a society neglect liberal arts?
A country that cannot produce a Jefferson or Franklin, or an Obama, or a Sotomayer . . . et al.
A provincial land trapped in an idealized version of its past, fearful of others, superstitious and inflexible—unable to adapt, politically repressive, unjust . . .
Some fear that focusing on liberal arts in the US will cause us to fall behind other countries, like India, who have an intense focus on specialized skills. How do you think liberal arts affects the global marketplace?
Look again at how many business leaders—leaders of all kinds—were educated in the liberal arts. The emphasis on jobs is partly an unspoken class issue. The inference is that a focus on education/training for jobs is okay for some—that is, those less privileged.
Specialized expertise is to be prized, of course, and for good reason, but a first-rate education always involves the liberal arts.
This resolution states: “In formal education liberal arts ought to be valued above practical skills.” How would you analyze this? Can there be a balance of liberal arts and practical skills? What does it look like to value one over the other?
Liberal arts are the most practical skills. One has not learned one thing. One has learned how to learn anything, and to pursue new knowledge, to create new knowledge.
I’m disinclined to accept the bifurcation of liberal arts and practical skills. You might consider this assertion in light of the perspectives offered in the links below.
A List of Extra Resources:
“Liberal Arts-STEM Mashup: Not a bad way to fix higher ed”, Hechinger Report
“Why The Tech World Highly Values A Liberal Arts Degree”, Washington Post
“STEM Study Starts With Liberal Arts”, Forbes
Dr. Donald Morrill (Ph.D.) is Associate Dean of Graduate and Continuing Studies at the University of Tampa . He also teaches composition, poetry writing, nonfiction writing, literature and media studies at the University, where received the Louise Loy Hunter Outstanding Faculty Member Award. He is the author of four books of nonfiction, and three poetry volumes. He has been awarded many times for his writing, Dr. Morrill has traveled extensively and has also taught at Jilin University in the People’s Republic of China, the Nonfiction Graduate Writing Program at the University of Iowa and the Poetry Center at Smith College. He also was a Fulbright Scholar in American Literature at the University of Lodz in Poland.