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In support of the liberal arts

February 8, 2013

Submitted by Tim Keefauver, VP of Strategic Planning in response to the Feb. 1 article “Taking the ‘liberal arts’ out of mc?”

The educational system known as the liberal arts is the finest method of education ever devised.  With this distinctively American system, employed by nearly all the top schools of this country, you need only look to the accomplishments of their graduates to know its power.

Since I am writing to a Monmouth College audience, where every first-year student takes the college’s signature course, Introduction to the Liberal Arts, the understanding of this term and our own intensely protective understanding of its value is self-evident.  So I needn’t provide an in-depth description here.  I would like to demonstrate how the broad-based liberal arts education I received was undoubtedly a large contributor to my personal and professional life and then also describe our work in the Admissions department to better promote the Monmouth College value proposition relative to the liberal arts.

When I retired from an iconic Silicon Valley high-tech firm last year, I was managing an organization that spanned or integrated hardware and software engineering, marketing, sales, advertising, product and program management, partner management, consulting, technical education, pricing and more.  Despite all the high-tech people around me, it was the Monmouth College liberal arts major (economics) who managed that highly profitable and uncommonly broad effort.  It was the liberal arts foundation, not a later MBA or the like, that allowed me to see connections where others did not.  At the same time, writing, presenting, and other communications skills were necessary to articulate the fundamental knowledge from many disciplines bridging the knowledge gap between those who held parts of the answer and leading to the construction of something greater than the sum of its parts.

The liberal arts do not merely enhance one’s ability to contribute to the world of commerce; they also enrich lives. That was a theme communicated just down the road from me, when Apple’s Steve Jobs stood on a stage under a street sign that indicated the crossroads of Technology and Liberal Arts.  With that now well-known presentation, there was no question of the relevancy of our form of education to today’s issues.

Experiencing how the breadth and depth of a liberal arts education can be applied successfully to today’s real-world, technology-driven business, paving the way for a better personal life, inspired me to return to Monmouth and to promote the liberal arts.

With an ever-increasing percentage of college students attending schools that are not liberal-arts based, the meaning of “liberal arts” is no longer widely understood or appreciated.  Many colleges, including Monmouth, have long used the term without a description or definition. This wasn’t good communication practice.  Our staff is now better primed to introduce the term with relevancy and clarity worthy of its value.  They also have been encouraged to find more opportunities to proactively describe the college’s academic excellence and exceptionally good student outcomes to prospective students.

Because printed materials like postcards and brief brochures, intended to be introductory to the college, usually do not have space to adequately describe the liberal arts, we adopted a strategy used by a number of strong liberal arts colleges like Monmouth, in which we use the limited space to try to describe what makes a Monmouth education special, rather than just drop in the term “liberal arts “.  This is the change that we are making that is at the heart of the recent misunderstanding.

This change in printed materials does not carry over to our web properties, where we have more space and use the term “liberal arts” extensively.

There is no change to the core identity of the college or goals or commitments by the college to the liberal arts.  It is just the opposite.  We are now taking the use of the term to a more thoughtful level, where we do not take for granted that the reader has an understanding of the term or its transformative value to young lives.  We want to increase the likelihood that when a prospective student or family hear us use the term, that they do not understand it to imply a political or social orientation, or a focus on specific humanities or something else.

As part of the descriptions we tend to use in explaining the liberal arts, such as broad education, integrated learning, and active learning, we also point out that despite the more limited definitions found in some dictionaries, our use of the term includes the fully immersive environment at Monmouth that extends to extracurricular activities, clubs, and the interaction with faculty and fellow students outside the classroom.

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