CEP spearheads year-long ‘Why Liberal Arts?’ initiative

The College’s Committee on Education Policy (CEP) has launched an initiative to examine the relationship between students and the liberal arts method of instruction. Entitled “Why Liberal Arts?” the effort focuses on how students experience, navigate and maximize the value of the education they receive at the College.

The year-long effort originated with the work of the Committee last year. “We started looking at various aspects of how students make their way through their time at Williams, through the curriculum,” said Lee Park, associate dean of the faculty, professor of chemistry and former chair of the Committee. “It became clear that a lot of students seemed not to really know much about what might be meant by a liberal arts education. A lot of students knew they did not have to pick a major right away, but they did not have any sense of what the philosophy might mean beyond that.”

Accordingly, Park, along with other members of the faculty, staff and several students, have designed a series of programming to engage the question “Why liberal arts?”  The events will run throughout the year and include lectures, dinners at Sloan House where students bring a faculty or staff member, a community ice cream social in Paresky Center, programming during Claiming Williams Day in February and an alumni panel in April where graduates will reflect on the value of a liberal arts education in their careers. Many of the events are being supported or organized in conjunction with the Gaudino Fund, the Book Unbound and Phi Beta Kappa. The initiative has also launched a Tumblr page – williamswhyliberalarts.tumblr.com – where students and faculty are encouraged to post their thoughts on liberal arts education at Williams.

The initiative is not intended to reach a definitive, succinct answer as to why the College continues to value the liberal arts, but rather to promote an ongoing discourse on campus to consider the merits of the education offered at Williams. “There are many, many ways to see and experience the great value of a liberal arts education, and if these conversations can shed more light, for each of us, on this plenitude then I and the rest of the members of the Committee on Education Policy will be delighted,” Peter Low, professor of art and current chair of the Committee, said. Park added, “I think the goal is to get some conversation going about what the liberal arts are, what they mean, why our faculty choose to come teach at this kind of institution and why our students choose to study here.”

Students and faculty alike are excited by the prospects of the initiative. Jack Hoover ’15, who is a member of the initiative’s student advisory group, said, “During my first three years at Williams, there was a serious lack of discussion surrounding the true purpose of what we’re doing here. If Williams is thought of as a degree mill, a simple stepping stone to the next stage, then we’ve missed the point entirely. The purpose of the ‘Why Liberal Arts?’ initiative is to get people talking. We’re not necessarily even recording or reporting on the conversation – it’s all about getting people talking. We hope this wide-reaching dialogue will ensure that our community is on the right track.”

Minwei Cao ’17, who is also a member of the advisory group, added, “This year, I’ve been working on the Sloan House dinners with other members of the “Why Liberal Arts?” team with help from the President’s office and dining services. We are trying to provide a place for conversation and food for thought with students, faculty and staff outside the classroom and meetings and playing fields. Why are we at Williams getting a liberal arts education? What do we hope to accomplish, learn, know by the end of four years? These questions need to be asked again and again, and I’m glad the campus is starting to engage in conversation.”

Susan Engel, senior lecturer in psychology and the Class of 1959 director of the Program in Teaching, said, “It happens that I have become interested in studying the impact of liberal arts education. There is a lot of debate right now in the media … about the value of a liberal arts education. Much of the debate is overheated, and often somewhat muddled. I am eager for more data. And luckily, many kinds of data will be useful, including well designed experiments, interview studies and last but not least, some open discussions on college campuses.”