In a period when some question the value of the humanities, social sciences and hard sciences, we in the College Dean’s office want to share our perspective. We write from years (and in many cases decades) of experience advising, teaching and mentoring students. We recognize that our reflections arise from our Georgetown experience and thus may not be applicable to other institutions. We further realize that our experience should not bind us and prevent us from being open to a change. Ultimately, we seek to preserve what is valuable in our tradition and to embrace innovation that will enhance learning.
Students come to the College to be educated at the university level. Many apply to Georgetown College because they want to study a particular discipline or prepare for a specific career field. For example, pre-med students self-identify in the application process and begin their pursuit of medical school prerequisites in their first year. However, most College applicants arrive as undeclared, with two years to select a major or majors. All College students — as well as those from SFS, MSB and NHS — participate in a core curriculum that includes courses in a range of disciplines. The College curriculum supports a broad approach to learning that allows for intellectual exploration.
So, what does a liberal education provide, and why is it important? It ensures breadth and provides for specialization. The breadth teaches students to read critically, to write well, to make sophisticated and persuasive arguments, to conduct research, to communicate orally, to listen effectively and to think widely. The broad curriculum therefore fosters and encourages those competencies we believe every college graduate should possess. The specialization through the major provides depth in a field, a fundamental expertise in a discipline and a foundation from which one may go on to explore further.
But, do the liberal arts prepare one for a career? The answer is a resounding yes. The nuance is that such an education — with a few exceptions — does not prepare one for a specific career. Accounting majors typically prepare for a job in accounting or finance. English, Arabic or history majors do not necessarily prepare for a career in these disciplines (although they may, of course, choose to apply to graduate school in these disciplines). However, the skills one acquires in the study of history, English and Arabic (and other College majors) prepare one for a career in a range of professions and for more than one possible career. Students leaving college today should expect their education to position them for multiple jobs and likely more than one career over a lifetime.
A major does not define one’s career path. One only need survey Georgetown College alumni for evidence: Brian Kelly (CAS ’76) (economics) is editor of U.S. News & World Report, Peter Blommer (CAS ’85) (government) is COO of Blommer Chocolate, Aline O’Connor (CAS ’77) (English) is a consultant on seed-system development at Agri Experience Ltd., Norah O’Donnell (COL ’95) (philosophy) anchors “CBS This Morning.” A first job is not a career and one should not confuse the two. Very few will end their careers in the same professional space in which they began them.
Does the College welcome innovation? Again, the answer is a resounding yes. A majority of the Initiative on Technology-Enhanced Learning grants for curricular innovation went to College faculty. We applaud and support their efforts to innovate in the classroom and to experiment with online delivery of course content. In the past five years, the College has initiated new minors, majors and concentrations, including a business minor with MSB, film and media studies, education, justice and peace, journalism, biology of global health, biological physics, philosophy and bioethics and Korean. The College supports 13 interdisciplinary programs, ranging from women’s and gender studies to comparative literature and Catholic studies.
We of the College Dean’s Office hope to provide insights into how we see the liberal arts at Georgetown and what we believe this education can and should accomplish — something that drives many of our decisions as deans. As deans in the College, my colleagues and I discuss a range of topics from how the College evaluates online summer courses, to real world alumni experiences and handling information overload in today’s society. These discussions are part of our attempt to help change the narrative about the liberal arts today.
Chester Gillis is the dean of Georgetown College.