Liberal arts prepare students for a changing world

Every spring, I shake 1,200 hands as our students take their final steps as Loyola University Maryland students. By the time they graduate, most of them know what immediately awaits them in the next chapter of their lives.

In this fast-paced, ever-evolving world, however, those new graduates may not know what they will be doing professionally in a few short years, never mind in a decade or two. After all, many of the jobs that exist today won’t be needed tomorrow. And many of the jobs that will be needed tomorrow are positions we can’t imagine today.

Still, our graduates can feel confident that they are ready even for those uncreated jobs for a single reason: the liberal arts education they have received. Because the best education doesn’t train students for that first job; it educates them for every possibility life will present in the future.

That’s the value of the liberal arts. The liberal arts give students the opportunity to learn critical thinking skills, become erudite speakers and writers, and gain knowledge in a breadth of topics that will inform whatever path they choose. The liberal arts also introduce students to deeply personal and social questions: What is my destiny? What is my role with regard to others in the world? By asking those fundamental questions, students gain a foundation in ethics that helps them achieve personal and professional success.

It’s easy — and even popular — today to criticize the liberal arts as old-fashioned and not applicable to today’s challenges and opportunities. However, it is because of the changing world and the many future unknowns that lie ahead that the liberal arts are so valuable.

The Joint Statement on the Value of Liberal Education, which was released by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, and the American Association of University Professors, speaks to the tremendous need for graduates of liberal arts schools.

“The disciplines of the liberal arts — and the overall benefit of a liberal education — are exemplary in this regard,” part of the statement reads, “for they foster intellectual curiosity about questions that will never be definitively settled — questions about justice, about community, about politics and culture, about difference in every sense of the word.”

Today’s world needs intellectually curious graduates who ask questions — important questions — and who are willing to seek solutions. We need people who can look beyond today, delve into the past, envision the future, and take a broader look at all that may lie ahead. We need individuals who are able to see themselves as part of a solution, part of something bigger than themselves. The liberal arts gives young people a foundation that can open up the world to them — and help them open it up for others.

Yet the liberal arts are threatened and often even eliminated by those who fail to see the tremendous long-term value of a rigorous, intellectually challenging education. The liberal arts education is time-tested and future-proof.

When I consider some of our Loyola alumni, I feel certain that it wasn’t their declared major in history or English or accounting that ultimately catapulted them to success. It was the liberal arts foundation they immersed themselves in while they were students that led to leadership opportunities, an ability to build relationships with others, and a clarity of thought and purpose that opened doors that make it possible for them to give back to society in powerful ways.

In his book “Where Is Knowing Going?,the Jesuit philosopher and theologian John Haughey explains that there are two types of academic freedom. There is academic freedom that allows individuals to talk and write about topics without censure, but there is also academic freedom where you reach the limits of the knowledge of your discipline and still question why and how. Push any field far enough and you enter that realm of mystery. At that point, it is not that there is something to be solved, but rather something to be experienced. The liberal arts help us navigate that realm.

As I shake our graduates’ hands at commencement, I think of how the liberal arts have prepared them for the unknown possibilities in the future. I tell each of them, “Make us proud.” I feel certain they will.

Rev. Brian F. Linnane (president@loyola.edu) of the Society of Jesus is the president of Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore.

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