When Sen. Howard Stephenson complained last winter about Utah college students wasting time and tuition on "degrees to nowhere," he hit a nerve on campuses statewide.
Specifically, the Draper Republican's gibe rattled cages in liberal arts colleges and in departments like English, history and the arts, where the joke has long been that graduates need to prepare certain phrases such as, "Do you want fries with that?" to go along with their Chaucer and appreciation for Renaissance painters.
But when Stephenson threw down his gauntlet and dissed the value of what has long been the core of any educated person — humanities, arts and social sciences — the faculty and students of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences (CHaSS) at Utah State University pushed back.
Biology major Megan Paxton scoffed when she heard the "nowhere" remark. "I disagree. Very strongly," she said. "The humanities are part of every sophisticated society. The arts keep us from turning into technical barbarians. They promote expression and higher thinking."
The college, whose professors teach 60 percent or more of the general education classes required of all Aggie students — from aerospace studies majors to business majors, from mathematicians to zoologists — has no apologies for its support of the liberal arts. In fact, CHaSS has just launched an alumni magazine to trumpet the value of its curriculum and the successes of its graduates and their "degrees to everywhere."
Dean John Allen, a rural sociologist, says a broad liberal arts education teaches critical thinking and communication skills; global perspectives; problem-solving and flexibility; and prepares students not just for that first job, but for life. National surveys of business executives consistently list "nowhere" skills and perspectives at the top of their lists of new employee attributes, he says.
"They want people with skills in critical thinking, quantitative analysis and complex problem solving. That's what we do in a liberal education," Allen said. "We bring that extra ability to integrate knowledge across fields and understand macro issues. We bring in the ethical decision-making process."
The college's new magazine celebrates those values starting with its title, Liberalis, and in its content. The lead story in the inaugural issue, released last month, is "Degrees to Everywhere," profiling four recent philosophy graduates who discuss their education in terms of the choices they see ahead of them.
Philosophy professor Charlie Huenemann came up with the title for the magazine, as well as an articulation of the importance of a broad liberal arts education. "Liberalis" is a Latin term "of or pertaining to freedom," he said. "We are interested in all kinds of freedoms — political and social freedom, but also freedom of thought, freedom from prejudices and freedom from fixed forms of thinking. Also, we try to be people who affirm the dignity and honor of human beings from all places, cultures and times."
Some worried that the term "liberalis" might hurt the college with conservative lawmakers, who would confuse it with liberal politics. But that shortchanges those with legitimate concerns about higher education. Any attention Liberalis gets becomes an opportunity to engage people in discussing the role and expectations of a university education. A liberal education isn't about politics; it's about an understanding of the world that is broad and wide and deep.
USU is a land-grant institution whose mission is to educate and broaden the horizons of the sons and daughters of Utah. We give students license, confidence and ability to go anywhere — or everywhere — and the tools to think and navigate the world for themselves.
With all due respect to Sen. Stephenson, that's the whole point of higher education.
Edward C. Pease is professor of journalism and head of the Department of Journalism & Communication at Utah State University. D. Whitney Smith is a junior journalism major.