Eight Ponder What Makes a Good Liberal Arts Education

Friday afternoon's symposium on "What Makes a Good Liberal Arts Education?" brought varying viewpoints from MHC faculty, staff, and alumnae on a topic that, as moderator Gillian Reynolds GS '58 said, "is at the center of the College's mission."

Despite Ford Foundation Professor of History Joseph Ellis' claim that most conversations of this type "contain a lot of incandescent nonsense," the high-minded and practical mixed beautifully in comments by panelists Naomi Barry '96, equal opportunity specialist at the U.S. Department of Labor; Barbara McClearn Baumann '77, vice president, Amoco Energy Group; U.S. District Judge Janet C. Hall '70; Ellis; Professor of Biological Sciences Diana Stein; Philip Jones, director of the Career Development Center; Professor of Art Marion Miller; and Dean of the College Beverly Daniel Tatum.

Ellis detailed four elements of a good liberal arts education: talented and dedicated students, "the all-important ingredient"; talented and dedicated faculty; at least $200 million in endowment; and a beautiful learning environment to inspire students and faculty. Finally, he said it should be a serious place where education is given top priority.

Hall contended that a liberal arts education is "not the acquisition of knowledge and not a set of information or a course of study." It is instead "becoming adept in learning how to learn" with "competent faculty, sister students with a diversity of backgrounds and experiences in an environment that's tolerant, respectful, and candid."

Diana Stein noted that "even many well-educated adults don't understand basic scientific information, even though sciences have been part of the liberal arts since the Middle Ages." Yet science is crucial to make sense of the modern world, she said. "In the best liberal arts curriculum, science students function as scientists, using the tools and instruments of science and determining their own conclusions."

Barry lauded the "flexibility and applicability" of a liberal arts education, saying it "lights the path of commonality." This is especially important in a world where things are so rapidly changing. "There are no separate fields any more," she said. Instead, we have "an intertwined, interdependent mosaic" for which a liberal arts education is good preparation.

Jones said one strength of the liberal arts is giving students "a command of communication," the ability to convey ideas clearly and concisely and to find multiple answers to any question. "The value of alternative viewpoints is a vital quality for students to take into the world beyond Mount Holyoke," he said.

Miller, a painter herself, urged all liberal arts students to continue art-making. "The experience of making is an essential touchstone of education," she argued.

Baumann said a liberal arts education should "stretch a student beyond her own strengths," have stringent communication requirements, provide ample resources and "time to think and muse amid the tyranny of the urgent," a "diversity of curriculum, culture, and people," a strong sense of community, encourage nonacademic efforts, and a wide window on the outside world."

Tatum noted the importance of affirming identity, building community, and cultivating leadership, her "ABCs."