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Dean's view: Liberal arts education opens new world of options to graduates

Susan N. Maher An opinion piece in the Washington Post in March was headlined “Enough with trashing the liberal arts. Stop being stupid.” A valuable tradition of educational training, writer Valerie Strauss lamented in the piece, has become a political football with governors and presidential candidates questioning the need for any more philosophy, French or anthropology majors (among the disciplines that have been questioned).

Strauss argued, “For years now, business leaders have been saying loudly that the skills learned in liberal arts education are exactly what they are looking for in employees.”

Liberal arts training leads to creative problem-solving, effective communication, the understanding of cultural traditions and global currents, and a deeper knowledge of humanity to a thorough exercising of the mind.

In six years as dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota Duluth, I have met scores of alumni who majored in liberal arts disciplines. These individuals have contributed greatly to Minnesota and the nation as doctors, CEOs, entrepreneurs, creative writers, nonprofit founders, lawyers, urban planners, community and spiritual leaders, and government officials. And, yes, some students follow their professors into the academy and become the next generation of college teachers.

Alumni from the UMD College of Liberal Arts are the best advertisements for this form of education, one that asks students to think across disciplines and traditions, to learn that writing is fundamental to understanding, and to value their innate creativity.

Liberal arts colleges have not stood still in time. At UMD, the college I lead has added important new programs for 21st-century professions: graduate and undergraduate degrees in tribal administration and governance that are setting the standard nationally; a bachelor of science in linguistics that prepares students for careers in internet technology, security fields and cognitive science; a unique bachelor of arts degree in cultural entrepreneurship that is connecting UMD to institutions in Canada, Norway, the Netherlands, Germany and China; and a bachelor of arts in geographical information systems that opens doors in engineering firms, government offices and businesses. These new programs are paving the way into exciting careers for UMD graduates.

Our large programs in communication and criminology are among the very best of their kind in the Midwest.

Shakespeare’s First Folio is coming to UMD this fall — the only site in Minnesota — because of the strength of our literary program in English and UMD’s commitment to arts and humanities.

Learning another language is a standout skill in this economy, and at UMD any student can add the study of language and culture in Chinese, French, German, Russian and Spanish. These College of Liberal Arts majors literally have a world of career options in front of them.

I could go on and on. Research shows that within 10 years, liberal arts graduates are financially secure in many satisfying careers. Research also shows that liberal arts graduates are among the happiest people because their college education also prepared them to be citizens of communities and learners for life. Education isn’t just about making money; it’s about making a good life.

Commencement at UMD was last weekend, and a new cohort of College of Liberal Arts graduates entered a new stage in life, prepared to work, prepared to serve and prepared to lead. They are a tribute to the continued importance of liberal arts education in the 21st century.

Susan N. Maher is dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota Duluth.