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Making connections

A liberal arts education proves more valuable than ever in an increasingly complex world

By Marla Holt


Catherine Callahan ’20 has her eye on working for either the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension or Germany’s Federal Criminal Police Office. The junior from Duluth, who is pursuing a chemistry major, German minor, and forensic science certificate, feels well equipped to achieve her goals, thanks to the liberal arts education she’s receiving at Hamline.

The breadth of classes Callahan is taking—and the ability to view them as interconnected—will give her a competitive advantage in the future, when employers are predicted to prize problem-solving and creativity over technical skills that can be learned on the job.

“The creativity I use in art class has bled over to my chemistry classes,” Callahan said. “Rather than tackling a problem from a strictly analytical point of view—which is traditionally what’s done in chemistry—I’m more inclined to come at it from a different angle. It works the other way too. I apply scientific principles like proportions and angles to my art.”

That facility with creative thinking and problem-solving is what makes a liberal arts education so valuable for the next generation of workers, who will tackle some of the world’s most complex issues, like poverty, climate change, food insecurity, education, and health care.

Big questions

“The liberal arts are an explicit manifestation of a plurality of approaches,” said Marcela Kostihova, dean of the College of Liberal Arts. “Humans tend to pursue big questions about who we are, how we should treat each other, and how we should organize society from differing viewpoints, depending on their backgrounds, cultures, or positions in society. At Hamline, we ask that students develop methods of inquiry from the perspective of an artist, a humanist, a social scientist, and a natural scientist.”

In other words, the liberal arts—from the Latin liber or “free, unrestricted”—encompass all academic disciplines, including the sciences. They are distinct from preprofessional and technical subjects, which tend to be focused on preparation for a single career.

Through rigorous inquiry across a range of disciplines, students of the liberal arts are prepared for multiple careers. They are well-rounded and globally minded and have an array of transferable skills, as well as the capacity to pursue lifelong learning.

History professor Susie Steinbach, director of the University Honors Program, noted that the liberal arts model we’re familiar with today took shape in the medieval period of the 12th and 13th centuries using ideas from Ancient Greek and Roman culture. It explores a range of knowledge and expression, particularly through the study of grammar, rhetoric, logic, geometry, arithmetic, music, and astronomy.

“The list of disciplines that define the liberal arts has changed over the centuries, but they continue to be varied ways of learning and expressing that liberate you to do what you want to do,” Steinbach said.

Indeed, no matter what major a student chooses—be it history, religion, economics, mathematics, biology, or studio arts—the modern liberal arts education gives students intellectual dexterity while preparing them to solve problems, adapt, and collaborate. They tend to be critical thinkers, good communicators, and ethical human beings, Steinbach said.

“Students want their degree to be useful, so a major in history or philosophy, at least initially, doesn’t sound like gainful employment,” Steinbach said. “But students are going to have diverse careers, and it’s our job to help them be intellectually nimble.”

Innovators and problem solvers

Lifeng Dong, professor and department chair of physics, noted that a broader education in the liberal arts introduces science students to ideas and concepts that make them better innovators and collaborative problem solvers.

“They learn to examine the societal impacts of scientific and technological advancements and are able to clearly explain complex scientific ideas in ordinary language,” he said.

Nonscience majors who take science courses gain the ability to investigate questions and evaluate claims about such topics as climate change, fossil fuels, and nuclear energy. They also have a better understanding of “daily phenomena, such as the formation of a rainbow, the generation of electricity, and the calculation of the home electricity bill,” Dong said.

History and philosophy major Andy Stec ’19 said Hamline forced him out of his academic comfort zones, better equipping him to understand the social, cultural, and historical context of ideas and concepts. Those lessons were particularly driven home in a Philosophy of Science course, in which he learned the history behind scientific methodology, and during his experience interning at the Chisago County Historical Society for Hamline’s Liberal Education as Practice (LEAP) credit, for which students pursue faculty-guided internships, research projects, apprentice teaching, and independent study.

Stec conducted oral histories, learning how emotion and cultural heritage can affect a community’s collective historical memory.

“It made me consider more broadly how history is told,” he said. “How do we choose whose stories will be remembered? How will those stories be recorded?”

After graduation, Stec plans to earn a doctorate in history then work for a historical society or museum.

Even departments at Hamline that might be considered outside the traditional liberal arts, like criminology and criminal justice, bring an interdisciplinary approach to their curriculum.

“As social scientists, we examine the structures and norms, cultures and sociodemographic challenges that inform crime,” said Associate Professor Shelly Schaefer, chair of the Department of Criminology, Criminal Justice, and Forensic Science. “Our students also become broader thinkers as they take courses across the liberal arts.”

Such an approach encourages students to think about the intersectionality of different structures and institutions, as well as confront their own implicit biases, Schaefer said. “Those are transferable skills that will serve them well as engaged citizens in their communities and in whatever field of work they choose.”

The outcomes of a liberal arts education align with the core skills many employers are looking for, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers. Those competencies include critical thinking, global and intercultural fluency, and teamwork, among others.

“We’re responding to what humanity is going to need in its 21st-century workers,” Kostihova said. “As knowledge and technology evolve, it’s important that our graduates are lifelong learners who can find, evaluate, absorb, and adapt to new information. That will make them successful over their lifetimes.”

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Liberal arts in action