Ride or Die with the Liberal Arts

By Mayank Dev Kumar

There are so many reasons to come to Denison – the caring professors, the close-knit community, the cosy campus, the list goes on. Inarguably, one of the things that makes Denison an exceptional institution of higher learning is our first-rate liberal arts curriculum, central to our mission. Over their four years on the Hill, Denisonians are required to take classes across a wide range of disciplines in the natural sciences, social sciences, humanities, and fine arts that exposes us to so many different ideas and ways of making sense of the world around us. We get to take discussion and writing-centered courses that prepare us to be excellent communicators. While ⅓ of our coursework is spent on our major, the other ⅓ is spent on these GE requirements, while the last ⅓ could be used for another major, minors, or for pure intellectual exploration.

As a graduating senior who chose to attend Denison for its liberal arts centered curriculum, I could not be happier with the intellectual and personal growth that has come out of my time here. I changed my majors at least four times and have had the opportunity to take travel seminars and directed studies. I’ve had the opportunity to conduct extensive and eye-opening research one-on-one with faculty across disciplines, which is hard to do for undergraduates at bigger universities. My Denison education has been instrumental in not only thinking about what I want to do, but who I want to be – which does not come easy to many twenty-one year olds.

Because I’ve cherished my time as a liberal arts student so much, it makes me uncomfortable to know that a lot of people do not see the value in such an education. Reports mention that the liberal arts are having a tough time across the country, with liberal arts colleges struggling to enroll students. Many youngsters increasingly prefer a practical or vocational education as a means to career success. This is in spite of the fact that data shows that those educated in the liberal arts are not only more fulfilled, but also out-earn those with a practical degree in the long run. The liberal arts are not only an end in and of themselves, but also a means to a prosperous career and life.

My experiences here on the Hill made me wonder about what my fellow Denisonians thought about a liberal arts education, especially if they thought differently about the liberal arts when asked to consider career readiness versus life fulfillment. While a liberal arts education extends beyond the classroom, the curriculum itself is at its core. So, in Dr. Djupe’s March 2021 campus-wide survey, we asked students whether they agreed or disagreed with the following statement:

“I would take courses outside my major even if there were no requirements to do so.”

This statement was preceded by the two following passages (or frames) – each to ⅓ of the respondents. An additional ⅓ of the respondents received no passage, being the control group.

[Job Ready treatment] In a recent survey by Forbes Business magazine, 73 percent of CEOs indicate placing high value in applicants’ ability to be flexible thinkers. Said one CEO in a followup interview, “We need people who can adapt to new systems, incorporate a wide variety of data to make informed decisions, and talk to diverse audiences.”

[Fulfilled Life treatment] In a recent survey by The New Yorker Magazine, 73 percent of people surveyed reported living a fulfilled life when they had training in being a flexible thinker. Said one respondent in a followup interview, “Life is much more interesting when I can adapt to new systems, incorporate a wide variety of data to make informed decisions, and have conversations with diverse people.”

The data suggests that there is very little variation in responses to this question across the three treatment conditions – 86 percent agree in the control, 86 percent agree when job fitness is emphasized, and 84 percent when the New Yorker suggests greater life fulfillment. These differences are not statistically significant. Denisonians are committed to this (thin, but important) definition of the liberal arts.

But Denison is also a liberal arts college and understanding just what that entails is something that may deepen over time. Indeed, this is the season when seniors and alums reach out to old professors in and out of their major to say thanks, they never knew that they would enjoy art history, statistics, geology, whatever. Can we find evidence that appreciation of the liberal arts grows with time? Not really, not with this blunt measure anyway. Seniors DO appear to have a higher level of support for taking courses outside their major, but not by very much.

Just a few weeks ago, Dr. Djupe found that about a fifth of students each found the sciences and the social sciences to be the best majors to prepare you for post-grad life. However, those figures were dwarfed by the plurality of students (~42%) who said all majors prepare you about equally. This strikes me as consistent with the support I see for the liberal arts in this post, but it’s worth looking specifically for this relationship. Is support for the liberal arts equal across majors?

In the figure below, I break out support by division of majors and there really is no difference among them (or in response to the job and fulfilled life treatments). Perhaps science majors are on the lower end, but the differences are so small that they are nowhere near statistically significant.

Overall, it’s noteworthy just how consistent support for a broad liberal arts curriculum is at Denison. It seems like Denison students are supportive of the liberal arts as a means to an end, but also as an end in and of itself. This is perhaps not unexpected, since I suspect many students chose Denison for the same reason I did – the artes liberales.

As commencement nears, and as I prepare for graduate school, I feel incredibly privileged to have received such a first-rate college education. The knowledge I have gained from my coursework – including everything from the history of world cinema, to theories of nationalism, to how metastatic tumor cells work – will surely benefit me in some way throughout my career and my life. Even if I blank on the actual content of my classes in thirty years, my coursework has instilled in me how to think about and see the world in a way that accounts for all of its complexities, and to care deeply about issues that matter to us all. I’m sure that other seniors can agree with me on this point. Thus, I end with one of my favorite quotes by Ralph Waldo Emerson – “I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.”

Mayank Dev Kumar is a soon-to-be B.A. in Political Science and Religion graduate from Denison. Mayank spent much of his senior year procrastinating on his senior thesis and being unapologetically angsty. He is trading up from Big Red to Crimson this coming fall.

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