The surprising institutions that refuse to drop the liberal arts
Christian Nattiel rattles off the way his course of studies has prepared him for his prestigious role as a company commander in charge of 120 fellow cadets at the U.S. Military Academy.
Nattiel, of Dade City, Florida, isn’t focusing at West Point on military science, or strategy, or leadership. He’s majoring in philosophy.
Ramrod straight in his Army combat uniform on the historic campus, where future officers are required to take humanities and social-sciences courses such as history, composition, psychology, literature, and languages, he said that, in philosophy, “There’s no right answer, and that’s very useful in the Army, so you’re not so rigid.”
Thirty miles up the Hudson River, students in chefs’ whites and toques experiment with recipes and test ingredients at the Culinary Institute of America, one of the nation’s foremost schools for chefs, whose seal is a knife crossed with knife sharpener. They’re required to take liberal-arts courses, too, including sociology, psychology, and languages, and have to write and present a senior thesis, all to help them later with such things as managing employees and preparing business plans and raising capital to open their own restaurants.
“People without a liberal-arts background really have no place to go with their skill sets,” said Frank Guido, a Culinary Institute student from Rochester, New York, sitting in the campus café and studying the Mayan Indians for a course he’s taking in history and culture. “They lack an overall knowledge, and an ability to relate to people and make educated decisions, and not jump to conclusions.”
As mainstream universities and colleges cut liberal-arts courses and programs in favor of more vocational disciplines, and the number of students majoring in the humanities continues to decline, unexpected types of institutions are expanding their requirements in the liberal arts with the conviction that these courses teach the kinds of skills employers say they want, and leaders need: critical thinking, problem-solving, teamwork, and communication.
‘The ability to think broadly’
“Some people are surprised, yes,” said Brigadier General Timothy Trainor, West Point’s academic dean, in his high-ceilinged, wood-paneled office in the Gothic-style stone administration building.
“It’s important to develop in young people the ability to think broadly, to operate in the context of other societies and become agile and adaptive thinkers,” Trainor said. “What you’re trying to do is teach them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change. They’re having to deal with people from other cultures. They have to think very intuitively to solve problems on the ground.”