24 April, 2012


I was recently asked to speak to a group of 150 or so students who had been accepted to my college for next year and their parents. I guess about 90% of these students ultimately show up in the fall, but we like to put our best foot forward so ensure that. What follows is a somewhat edited version of my remarks. It borrows 'liberally' from other sources.

I’ve been asked to speak to you about the liberal arts and why they are important.

I don’t really want to; it's a much too gorgeous day out there. Early afternoon, clear sky, and 80˚F. Higher education has been built around the liberal arts for the better part a thousand years. There are many more 'current' things we could discuss, but they want me to tell you why you should care about the liberal arts.

If you're wondering what they are, there were originally seven – three that were thought to be basic and foundational and then four more advanced ones.

In the first group, there was grammar which dealt with the structure of language, logic dealing with the structure of thought, and rhetoric which was concerned with the use of language and/or thought to inform or persuade others. With those skills in hand, you were then presumed ready to study the four more complex fields of geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and music.

In fact, the simpler first three were known as the Trivium which gives us our word 'trivial' – originally meaning 'something simpler.' Today they have come to mean 'something less important,' an unfortunate lexical evolution. The Trivium is anything but trivial.

As colleges and universities matured, more and more disciplines were added. For example, by the 1400s languages other than Latin were being taught, and by the 1500s 'natural magic' was introduced - the experimental sciences like chemistry and physics.

We have taken this study of the liberal arts seriously at UC, as have most colleges, and probably a third of your coursework for a bachelor’s degree will be focused in the liberal arts and sciences.

The curriculum here offers a distinctive blend of liberal arts and professional studies. It's one that we think gives our students great preparation both to secure good jobs after graduation, to advance in their chosen fields, and to be adaptive enough to switch careers, if they should decide to.

Our students are graduated with the ability to write and to speak effectively. We stress it here because - whether it’s fair or not - people will be judged all their lives by their ability to communicate.

Our students also graduate with the ability to analyze ideas from several points of view. Aristotle wrote that it is a mark of the educated mind to be able entertain a thought without accepting it. I agree. You don’t have to embrace an idea to explore its value, but you need to be willing to do so and have the skills that allow you to do so.

So ultimately a liberally educated individual can think critically, write well, speak well, have a skeptical attitude so they can separate fact from fiction, understand diverse perspectives, and arrive at creative solutions to complex problems.

And wouldn't you know it - these are just the skills employers say are most important to them.

Equally important, I think, is that such people become self-educating so they never stop learning. Most people change employers at some point. Today there are very few like me; I’m an anachronism – one employer for 37 years. Most folks change employers several times, and many change even their whole career focus.

A good liberal education is what gives you the requisite skills and confidence that allows you to do that. So are they still important after a millennium? Of course.

I never quite sure how long to go on about this. There is the 50 minute version of this, and I even have a 75 minute version. Perhaps I'll save those for another day.

At UC and most schools students get to evaluate their professors at the end of a course, and I once read a story of two colleagues discussing their results. I'm sure it's apocryphal.

One professor shared a comment from his that read, “If I had only 20 minutes left to live, I would want to spend it in the presence of Dr. Proctor.” The other colleague thought that was wonderful and said so. Dr. Proctor said, “Wait, you didn’t let me finish."

He went on, “If I had only 20 minutes left to live, I would want to spend it in the presence of Dr. Proctor - because in his class, every minute seems like an hour.”

So … just in case - today – with this weather - I'm thinking shorter is better. After all, we'll have four years to explore more fully Western history and philosophy. Maybe more.