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Many people today are skeptical about higher education in general and the liberal arts in particular. They worry about the cost of college and the relevance of the liberal arts in the workplace. Some have a similar reaction as the gentleman seated next to me on a flight last year. When he turned to me and asked what I do, I replied that I’m president of a small liberal-arts college. “Wow,” he said. “Good luck with that.”

purpose of a liberal arts education
Jill Tiefenthaler

I’m an optimist when it comes to higher education, however, and I believe that a liberal-arts education has never been more relevant in terms of preparing young people for work and life. Every day on our campus, we’re opening minds and hearts so students can see opportunities in the world, focus their energies and collaborate with others to find new solutions to complex problems. We’re preparing them to be leaders in whatever fields they enter—individuals who are resilient in the face of change, which is the one thing they’ll surely face for the rest of their lives.

A rapidly changing world means that young people will need to know the value of seeing things from different perspectives and be experts in collaboration and communication. The only way they can prepare for the future—for jobs that don’t yet exist—is to develop nimble minds, comfort with different cultures and ideas, and skill at writing and speaking—which are all qualities developed by the liberal arts.

Unfortunately, many people make the all-too-common mistake of confusing education with training. The idea that colleges should simply be factories for producing graduates focused exclusively in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields is shortsighted. While getting a job that leads to a fulfilling career is a great reason for going to college, it certainly isn’t the only one. A liberal education—including, for example, philosophy, art and sociology as well as math and physics—educates the whole person, and prepares students to excel in a range of careers and, most importantly, live lives rich with meaning and purpose. A liberal-arts education teaches students to learn how to learn, and inspires them to go on learning throughout their lives.

We no longer live in a world where people hold the same jobs throughout their entire lives. Many of our students will have jobs in 10 years that don’t exist now. For that reason, our colleges must continue to prepare young people to think with rigor and creativity rather than simply train them for a particular line of work.

Here at Colorado College, we see the same traits of successful people who accomplish their goals as being nurtured by the liberal arts:

  • Resilience, or the ability to recover from setbacks and cope with stress;
  • Grit, or perseverance and passion for challenging goals;
  • Conscientiousness, or the tendency to be responsible and willing to delay gratification;
  • Creativity, or the willingness to break with convention, challenge the status quo and come up with new ideas;
  • Focus, or the ability to zero in on one thing at a time and tune out distractions; and
  • Self-regulation, or an awareness of what matters and the discipline to see something through.
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In fact, these traits, along with compassion and humility, are frequently used to describe Colorado College graduates. Our students go on to successful careers in a variety of areas. We recently queried students from the Class of 2012 and found that many of them are already pursuing meaningful new adventures across the globe.

We’re also taking care to uphold our tradition of learning for its own sake. As Colorado College professor Tim Fuller stresses in the foreword to Michael Oakeshott’s The Voice of Liberal Learning, “At some point in the educational venture, students need an interval in which they are neither simply learning school lessons nor looking to their future careers. In this interval is to be found the full flowering of liberal learning, the blossoming of human life.”

Jill Tiefenthaler is president of Colorado College.

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