A Dean’s View: The importance of liberal arts

Exploring a wide range of disciplines and perspectives is an integral part of an education, says James Chansky, assistant dean of pre-college programs, even if you think you are certain about your future career path. Here, he talks about the importance of a broad liberal arts education, how Summer@Brown classes approach even the narrowest subjects from multiple angles, and why it’s okay to start college undecided about a major or career.

One of the great things about Summer@Brown is that it’s structured to encourage exploration. With nearly 200 courses covering a broad range of topics – from philosophy to physics and everything in between – and a focus on learning over grades and credits, it’s the ideal setting in which to try out a new subject or dive deeper into a favorite topic.

With all the emphasis these days on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and the focus on “practical” training for careers, why is it important that students also study liberal arts?

At the heart of a liberal arts education is learning how to see things from different perspectives, and this is really essential for understanding anything at all. Being able to think critically about various perspectives is essential for knowing how to judge and to act. I don’t think you can acquire these capacities in any better way than through the liberal arts. Absolutely students need to prepare for the “real world” and for making a living, but it’s not the case that you need to choose one at the expense of the other: focusing on both as equally important to your future is the best preparation for work and for life.

One needs to ask this question: If your education is exclusively focused on training for a particular career, what about the rest of your life, outside of work? Knowing a lot about only that one thing and little about the world in which you live and work leaves you pretty unprepared for living and working in the world.

Many students are uncertain about what they should study. How do you guide students who have not decided on a particular career or area of interest?

Well, the first thing is to reassure them that not knowing what they want to focus on is what they have in common with the majority of students entering college. Really, how could you know for sure what you want to focus on before you know what is out there to learn? Looking around and figuring out your options is a great way to get started. Secondly, I’d encourage them to think about what they’ve enjoyed learning and what’s left them thinking about what they don’t know, and to follow that path.

Particularly for younger students, it’s really not possible to make a serious mistake in choosing what to study if you go with any of the areas that have brought you pleasure or left you wanting to know more. One has to start somewhere, and, at the beginning, where that somewhere is matters less than that you’re really interested and engaged in what you’re studying.

How might an exploration of topics benefit students when they enter college, and even beyond that?

I’ll go back to what I said earlier about multiplying your perspectives and engaging in critical thinking. In just about any class that challenges you to think differently about something, or learn something you didn’t know, you’re going to acquire skills that prepare you well not just for college-level study, but for life. Exploring widely brings you in contact with ways of seeing and thinking that provide you with an understanding of the interconnectedness of things. It gives you the ability to think clearly and critically about your work and your life. And who knows where that thinking might take you?

What are some of the unique course offerings at Summer@Brown, and the ways you have seen students explore in the way you’re talking about?

I could talk for hours about this! One of the great things about the Summer@Brown curriculum is that in addition to the more traditional courses, at Brown, we also approach a lot of topics sort of sideways.

For example, while we offer courses in the biological sciences that are key to pursuing a medical track, we also have courses that put the practice of medicine in the lived context in which medicine is practiced: from looking at health and illness from political, historical, social and economic perspectives to learning how to observe carefully and really see patients and illness by reading literature by and about doctors and doctoring.

There are courses that ask a particular question or enter a discipline by a seemingly narrow door, but give students an entirely new way of looking at or thinking about the world. I’m thinking of courses in history and political science that do this in explicit ways, like looking at a period in history and coming away with an understanding of the methods and theories that guide historians’ work. That in turn informs the way students understand the history that’s happening currently in the world around them. There are courses in literature or philosophy that, in addition to teaching students how to read carefully and to think and write critically, also raise fundamental questions about the meaning of being a human being and our lives with other people and the world around us.

The great thing about the liberal arts is that in learning about one thing, you’ll often end up learning about a lot of other, unexpected things.

You’ll learn how to see the rich complexity of the world and be better able to understand and respond to the challenges of making your way through it. And, just to go back to the first question, you’ll be far better prepared for the particular career you end up pursuing and become a person who is alive to the whole of life and living and able to live productively as an informed and responsible citizen.

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