Should a student get a college education to:
a) learn a skill
b) contribute to your community
c) know yourself
d) be well-rounded and think critically
e) all of the above

The answer to this question is something universities across the nation are considering, and the programs they offer depend on their answer.

Is the purpose of a general or liberal arts education to introduce students to great works of music, art and literature that are considered the crowning achievements of civilization (the core model)? Or is it to gain an appreciation for ways of thinking through various academic fields and to learn how to ask questions and find answers (the distribution model)?

For much of the history of academe in America, Harvard University has taken the lead in setting a traditional core model for its course offerings; but in the 1960s, due to the pressures of consumer demand and faculty pressures to teach their specialties, most colleges switched to a distribution model. According to Professor Barry Latzer of City University of New York, only a few colleges continue to have true core programs today.

Some educators fear cultural heritage may be lost when students don’t have a common core of knowledge. But in a recent article in the Chronicles of Higher Education, Elizabeth Stone of Fordham University said, “If there’s any consensus among liberal-arts faculty members, it’s that there’s so much worth knowing that ‘coverage’ is no longer possible, if it ever was.”

Trained vs. educated
Phil Ronniger, career counselor at WSU Career Services, says there is currently a strong wave of vocationalism in higher education for several reasons:
1) Limitations. There is continually more information that needs to be learned in any field of study, so there is pressure on educators to eliminate some requirements in order to fit in the necessities.

2) Cost. It is common for students to spend more than four years of full-time education in the pursuit of a bachelor’s degree. With college debt averaging $19,000 or more per student, cutting requirements seems like the reasonable thing to do.

3) Need. Does a sales manager need to know Shakespeare? Does a background in the humanities really make a person a better veterinarian? In view of the mounting pressures, some educators are saying no, but Ronniger and many others believe there is much to be gained from studying the arts, because education is about more than employability.

Joan Burbick, professor of English at WSU, says, “How we have come to know our place in the world, how we articulate and act on our assumptions about life, how we use language and the arts to give meaning to our everyday world — these are the topics undertaken by the liberal arts.”

Ronniger concurs that it is in liberal arts that students learn to question, research, discuss, probe and listen, and these are a large part of the communication skills needed in any profession. A liberal-arts education gives graduates flexible skills to take with them into the many different careers they are likely to have in their lives after college.

Life-long learners
Regardless of the debate, it’s a certainty that liberal arts won’t be disappearing from WSU any time in the foreseeable future. The goal of WSU’s GERs (General Elective Requirements) is to produce life-long learners who can adapt to new situations. By the time a student graduates from WSU, one-third of his class time has been spent in courses outside his major. Many employers consider this type of broad education to be the best type of job training.

Ferguson Enterprises, a nationwide construction wholesale distributor, looks for students with a driving attitude and an ability to learn. Ferguson’s recruiting coordinator, David Boyce, says his company made job offers to 10 to 15 WSU grads this month. His company likes the motivated spirit coming from recent college grads like those found at WSU. He adds that their best candidates of all the schools in the northwest are from WSU, in part because of their liberal-arts background.

Marsha Royer, vice president of human resources for Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories, says WSU students are a good fit for their global company because they are comfortable in the Pullman area, eager to apply their strong work ethic and “they have graduated from a very good school.” She notes that students who have taken math and science courses to augment their liberal arts background often have a well-rounded view of the work world. As a result they can understand the importance of the “big picture” and accept new and different ideas.

Ronniger and Burbick agree that college is primarily a time for growth and finding out about oneself by being exposed to a variety of cultures and viewpoints. They say students who have gone through this process make more well-rounded community members and people, as well as better employees.