Higher Education

What would Thomas Jefferson say? The mind and heart of the new liberal arts

In a statement that may sound similar to today’s media rhetoric, 93 years ago Thomas Edison publicly shared the opinion that a college degree is useless.

Albert Einstein brilliantly retorted, “It is not so very important for a person to learn facts. For that he does not really need a college. He can learn them from books. The value of an education in a liberal arts college is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks.”

That exercise of mindfulness is precisely the mission of liberal arts colleges and universities across the country, and progressive forward-looking university presidents have accepted the challenge to find new ways to capture and present that knowledge to prospective students.

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But accepting a challenge like the one leveled by Einstein isn’t new, nor is reframing the liberal arts to value its historic past while meeting the needs of today’s global economy.

Ralph Kuncl

Ralph Kuncl

If I could somehow recruit Thomas Jefferson to our current faculty, I believe he would teach not only the classic liberal arts of mathematics, astronomy, music, grammar, logic, and rhetoric but also the 20th century “liberating” domains of philosophy, history, literature, languages, natural and physical sciences, and psychology.

And yet, I believe he, too, would extol the “new liberal arts” of our time like data science, digital graphic design, animation art, photographic and video production, geodesign, epidemiology, or public policy. Study in these disciplines builds comprehensive computational and communication skills and modern data literacy, which includes statistical inference, complex data management, algorithms, and the design and visualization of massive information.

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The liberal arts are not and have never been stodgy; they evolve to meet the needs of a contemporary and future society. A revitalization of the liberal arts means creating a more relevant educational experience for students and employers alike. The liberal arts institutions of today must be willing to expand their current definition of the liberal arts to also encompass the knowledge, skills, and creativity needed in a 21st century, global economy.

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At the University of Redlands, we are innovating with visual and media studies and the diffusion of spatial analysis and learning into virtually every corner of the curriculum, whether anthropology, English, history, race and ethnic studies, or religion.

Our students already live this shift in the liberal arts, because we are preparing them for leadership roles in a global reality that we cannot yet conceive. But we know it is one in which the value of a liberating college education is an appreciating asset, creating not only a career but a connection through service to society and the personal flexibility to make changes throughout life.

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The core purpose of the University of the Redlands is unchanged since its founding over a century ago: to educate both the mind and heart, so that each student leaves the University prepared for a life of personal and professional growth and service to the community.

We can look to our graduates to validate the success of this model. And at Redlands, no couple exemplifies this definition of civic engagement better than Richard and Virginia Hunsaker. In 1948, Rich and Ginnie Hunsaker were chosen to lead their freshman class and accepted student government roles at the institution. Now, they are creating a future generation of civic leaders and Redlands supporters through a generous $35 million gift to establish the Hunsaker Scholarship Prize. In essence, the Hunsakers are partnering with the university to look for today’s version of themselves and are endowing a future for the next generation of scholars who have minds and hearts that are open to the new liberal arts.

My daily focus, which is shared by my colleague presidents across the country, is to build a university that can support the intellectual curiosity and “training of the mind” that high caliber students need to be prepared for today’s and tomorrow’s challenges.

To meet these needs, we must embrace new academic disciplines and create meaningful leadership experiences for students. It is about endowing a future that the students (and all of us) cannot even imagine right now.

Dr. Ralph Kuncl is president of the University of Redlands.

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