The Last Word
Written by: Dr. Henrik Borgstrom

Liberal Arts: What’s the Point?

In his treatise on education, the 18th century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau describes the interaction between a young boy, Émile, and his private tutor. One day, after the teacher had given a particularly lengthy and impassioned discourse on the value of geography and astronomy, the boy turned to him and asked simply, “A quoi sert tout cela?” roughly translated into English as “What’s the point?” or “Why do I need that?”

When I was a junior in college, much to my parents’ chagrin, I changed my major from business finance to French literature. Suddenly, a question that had never before been posed to me became a recurrent refrain that would persist for years to come: “What are you planning to do with that?”

The liberal arts are the core of the Niagara University education. All students, whether they major in accounting, hotel management, criminal justice, or biochemistry, are required to take courses from most of the departments in the College of Arts and Sciences, and I have no doubt that many of them, while filling up the requirements on the left side of their curriculum card, ask themselves, “Why do I need that?”

In April 2012, the Association of American Colleges and Universities published the results of a survey that asked 320 chief executive officers of leading American companies what they desired most in their employees. Seventy-four percent stated that they preferred to hire job candidates with a strong background in liberal arts. Ninety-five percent of them said they need workers who are able to solve problems and to translate their ideas with good communication skills.

Rousseau’s answer to Émile came the following day, when the teacher led the child into a forest, then let him believe that they were lost. The boy was brought to tears until eventually fear and frustration brought back his lessons in geographic orientation, which allowed him to figure out the way home on his own –– a kind of experiential learning by fire.

My response to the question “What’s the point?” is that students in the liberal arts are able to think critically, to imagine outside of the box, to adapt to unexpected challenges, and to express themselves effectively, sometimes in multiple languages.

The sad reality, however, is that at many universities, the liberal arts are the last on the list to receive resources or investment, and in tough economic times, the liberal arts face disproportionate cuts compared to professional schools and accredited programs.

Despite these universal challenges, the liberal arts continue to be the foundation of the Niagara University education. Students in all four colleges take courses in the College of Arts and Sciences as part of their general education requirement. In May 2013, the College of Arts and Sciences recognized two outstanding faculty members whose dedication to their students’ success in the liberal arts has gone above and beyond professional expectations: Dr. Kalen Churcher, assistant professor of communication studies; and Nanette Harmon, director of American Sign Language and Deaf Studies.

Kalen Churcher was part of a small team of professors from the College of Arts and Sciences who, on their own initiative, transformed our students’ first year experience by restructuring and strengthening the NU Beginnings curriculum. This was a faculty-driven project born out of interdisciplinary collaboration and a desire to bring freshman students into contact with full-time faculty in their chosen field, beginning the very first week of their first semester at Niagara. The impact of this program has been tremendous.

When I hired Nanette Harmon seven years ago, our department offered a single course in American Sign Language. Since that time, Nanette built up a full undergraduate minor in ASL and Deaf Studies, including a sequence in applied signing and courses in Deaf Culture. It is now the only such program in this region and, this past semester, it enrolled more than 150 students.

These are the kinds of initiatives that define Niagara’s liberal arts core. And these are the kind of professors you find here as well: supremely dedicated, profoundly invested, and completely committed to the success of their students.