Saturday, May 16, 2009

The case for liberal arts education

In general, I'm a fan of the idea of breadth in education. That's not to say there are no drawbacks to liberal arts educations; if you concentrate on breadth, you lose a little bit of technical depth within your specialty.

The largest drawback of a liberal arts education is that you mainly get out of it what you put into it; it can be easy, at many universities, to skim a wide variety of topics without taking the effort to understand, and if combined with a carefully selected major, it's possible to go through with a minimum of effort.

In benefit, though, you can gain a great deal of understanding of other fields, a great deal more confidence that what you are specializing in (if anything) is one of the things you are best suited for, or most want to do, and more flexibility than offered by technical specialization.

As I looked through Ph. D. programs, I found that - surprising as it may be to you - mathematics doctoral programs often required, for completion, proficiency - at the level of technical translation - with one of a list of specific languages. I have long since ceased being surprised when I find that something I learned in a philosophy class is useful for mathematics or physics, or vice versa.

Or in or for any other subject. The traffic modeling discussed in an introduction to urban planning is covered in applied mathematics; literary analysis techniques are of interest to philosophers; the epistemology studied by philosophers is the foundation of experimental science. If you take it seriously, a liberal arts education is a wonderful thing.

1 comment:

  1. I needed proficiency in 2 languages at UW-Madison from the list of:
    French, German, Russian, and maybe one other.