LIBERAL ARTS: WHAT ARE THEY OR WHAT IS IT?

If you’re an accounting major what you study can be defined. Liberal arts is a different animal (and as I type this Word indicates I should be typing liberal arts are). I’ve read a lot of good statements about liberal arts, usually by college presidents who apparently have some need to describe and defend, but for me it’s not about what it is but what it does.

My wife and I have a standing joke: When she asks me something (What’s hirsute mean?) and I provide the answer she says, “How do you know that?” I always reply, as she rolls her eyes, “I went to a liberal arts college.”

I was a good student at a good public high school. At Whitman I became a history major because I fell in love with the study of history. It was about discovery, new ways of looking at old news, considering cultures rather than distilled facts. I became an engaged intellectual, someone interested in ideas.

The residential context of the small, liberal arts college demands interaction with diverse peers who find their own intellectual and activist passions. Late night conversations are the norm. And it’s no surprise that Whitman turns out a disproportionate number of Teach for America and Peace Corps volunteers. The liberal arts is about involvement and engagement, about joyful living and having an impact.

I think of my Whittie friends: Tom, a philosophy major who’s a psychiatrist; Terry, the first of his family to graduate high school, now a PhD physicist; Wendy, a sociology major with a PhD in Italian Lit; Wes, an English major who works as a criminal defense attorney; Evan, my fellow history major, now a journalist.

An admission: I’m the old guy in Whitman’s Admission Office. The above mentioned friends and I graduated from Whitman 43 years ago. We all continue to be passionately involved in our careers, relationships and avocations. Whitman’s liberal arts environment nurtured that.

Hirsute: covered with hair

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