Liberal Arts and Society: Goals, Outcomes, and Obligations

By Mack Carter, EC Energy Impact Team

What is a liberal arts education? Fort Lewis College is one of less than 40 public liberal arts colleges in the United States, but how well do we represent what a liberal arts college is? These are very important questions that need answers in the coming weeks as FLC’s mission and core values are redefined. The proposed mission statement as of 26 October aims for a “liberal education,” as opposed to a “liberal arts education.” The importance of our mission statement and core values may not be apparent at first, but they are the guiding documents for every policy made by the college. They determine what classes are offered or required, how much funding departments get, which student organizations get priority, and so many more things that are integral to the lives of FLC students.

A liberal arts education is loosely defined as a liberal education that grounds itself in the arts and humanities. The goal of this style of education is to contextualize graduates’ knowledge of their specific focus, or major, with a better understanding of the world at large. Specifically, it does this by starting students in subjects like English, history, or philosophy. What purpose does this serve exactly? Apart from providing an excellent proving ground to help college students develop their written communication skills, it educates students about the human experience, about culture, about what our society values, and how we determine what is right and what is wrong. It enables academic success, but more importantly it prepares graduates to think critically about society and about their everyday lives.

The outcome of a liberal arts education is not just a well-rounded, holistically-educated person who can apply their academic knowledge and skills to any situation. That’s the outcome of a liberal education. Graduates from liberal arts colleges, while also having a broad base of knowledge, have been trained in the vague yet absolutely necessary art of examining humanity in terms of the intangibles: our values, our desires, our culture, our ethics. These intangibles are what set humans apart from all other animals on earth. We strive not just for survival and the propagation of our gene pool, but we seek self-actualization, we seek a greater good, we seek something more. Liberal arts graduates know this and are willing to engage with the concept at every level of human life and society. As Plato put it in The Republic, “The object of education is to teach us to love what is beautiful.”

Finally, since this is after all a blog for the Environmental Center, let’s talk about the obligations bestowed upon us by a liberal arts education. Since we have the privilege to learn about society from a new perspective, it is our duty to use that knowledge and skill set to help improve society. (For the inherently self-interested core in every human’s 10-million-year-old lizard brain: a better society for everyone else is a better society for you, too.)

Anyone who even briefly studies environmental science from an objective perspective can tell you that the human race is not in a good position. Most research scientists agree that not only is the planet’s climate moving in a direction not compatible with the world’s current state of affairs, but eventually human life won’t even be viable. And again, the scientific consensus is that climate change is largely caused by humans. Our society is constructed in a way that encourages people to focus solely on human achievement rather than appreciating our achievements in context– that we live on a planet with limited resources that fortunately meets the biological and environmental parameters necessary for human life. We may be achieving more than ever before, but we’re doing so by using our natural resources in an unsustainable manner.

People who ignore those facts don’t change anything. All they’re doing is signaling to others that there’s something they value more than the survival of the human race. FLC students, with the knowledge and skills provided by a liberal arts education, can impact our society in meaningful ways. So shouldn’t we be doing something about it? Shouldn’t you be doing something about it?