The fundamental strength of the Letters & Science experience is that it’s broad and inherently interdisciplinary, characteristics that serve us well in an ever-changing global community. Whether through the humanities, the social sciences, or the biological, physical, computational or mathematical sciences, a liberal arts education prepares our students to understand and appreciate a range of disciplines, to think critically and to communicate well. We ensure that our students understand not just what we know about the world, but how that knowledge is built. At its core, a liberal arts education equips students to carry out the “fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found” well beyond their time at UW.
Unfortunately, we are living in a moment when some are questioning the value of a college education. Recent surveys show that public trust of higher education is at an all-time low, and too often, it’s the liberal arts that are subject to the most questioning. I know that the education we provide in the College of Letters & Science—a liberal arts education—is a solid foundation upon which our graduates build remarkable careers, become leaders in their communities, and live as informed and thoughtful citizens who make a positive impact on the world.
It is through the liberal arts that we understand what it means to be human. What we choose to write, sing, perform and create reflects the human condition. I would argue that how we understand ourselves as humans is vitally important to how we address many of the grand challenges facing our world today. For example, the impact of our changing climate is a scientific problem, but it’s also a social, political and economic concern. Similarly challenging, artificial intelligence presents as a technological advancement, but it also manifests ethical questions.
The challenges and opportunities our students encounter as graduates require broad perspectives, intellectual curiosity and nimble thinking. We have an awesome responsibility to prepare them to be leaders in a complex and increasingly pluralistic society. I recently had the privilege of chatting with former Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig. He co-teaches a course on the history of baseball. He told me about one of the questions he lectures on: How did the MLB decide to resume play after the 9/11 attacks? This unique real-world perspective on decision making is a single, yet poignant, example of the value of a liberal arts education.
Six years ago, we launched SuccessWorks, an innovative approach to career services for L&S students and recent alumni. SuccessWorks is grounded on the principle that each of our more than 67 undergraduate majors prepares students for success after graduation; at their core in their own way, our liberal arts majors prepare students in critical thinking, analytical reasoning, problem solving, oral and written communication and, for many majors, ethical conduct and responsible citizenship. That we prepare students with such a set of foundational skills that are universally applicable is why the liberal arts education is so valuable.
It’s for these reasons and more that we are embarking on a new initiative to re-articulate the value of the world-class liberal arts education we provide in the College of Letters & Science. We’re also reflecting on our degree requirements to ensure that we are living up to our promise to provide an educational experience that prepares students to be stewards of the Wisconsin Idea.