Passion and Purpose: A Liberal Arts Education

Mount News: alumni magazine

By: Arlene Meyer Werts

File Under: alumni, career, education, ethical leadership, faculty

In the midst of our economic recession, media sources have been ablaze with opinion pieces on the relevancy of college generally and liberal arts education specifically. Are students learning what they need to know to make it in this world? Is an education grounded in humanities, sciences and social sciences worth the cost?

It’s a question that fires passion in History Professor Tim Lynch, Ph.D. He practically lights up the room with his fervent desire that everyone experience the mind-opening opportunities presented by the venerable arts and sciences offerings of a liberal arts education.

“My parents were working class people without much formal education,” Lynch says. “Their great gift to me was a college education. For me, philosophy is what brought me into the world of real learning. To read the works of the great thinkers and understand ideas that shaped the world — that changed my life.”

Lynch earned his degree in philosophy, studying what he was passionate about, and that’s the advice he gives to his students. “I tell them to make the most of your God-given talents,” he says. “The last thing you want to do is approach your education as getting your ticket stamped.”

He offered as an example a nursing student who took his course in modern American history to fulfill a requirement. She wasn’t expecting to find anything relevant to her career, but after a segment on the Vietnam War era, she was able to better understand and care for her patients in the Veterans Administration Hospital.

“History can be a tough sell to young people,” Lynch admits. “It addresses change over time, and that can be hard to grasp when you haven’t lived through large shifts in politics, for example. Part of my job is to help students understand that history is a story that is relevant at different times in life.”

Finding the Right Path

The message got through to May 2012 graduate Amanda Varnam. “When I started at the Mount, I had no idea what I wanted to do after college,” she says. “I came in as undeclared. I took a history class with Dr. Lynch and loved it. So I looked into history as a major. At first I was a little worried. I knew I didn’t want to teach, so I had to find out if it presented other options.”

Varnam found her answer when she landed a co-op position with a local historical society, then later in the campus facilities office office and at the Sisters of Charity Ministry Foundation. She is now beginning a master’s program in American Studies at George Washington University in D.C., with plans to become a museum curator.

Matt Sprague, on the other hand, thought he knew exactly what he wanted to do when he started at the Mount. “I planned to go into athletic training,” Sprague says, “but it wasn’t long before I decided that wasn’t for me.”

Through career counseling and course experimentation, he settled on criminology. “My adviser, J.W. Carter II, Ph.D., was willing to look outside the box to help me find nontraditional paths in the field,” Sprague says. “I think that sums up a liberal arts education — an ability to think outside the box, and that means there are no limitations to what you can learn.”

Sprague graduated in May 2012 and is now a caseworker for Hamilton County Job and Family Services.

“In my work, I deal with a lot of different types of people, socio-economic classes and cultures,” Sprague says. “My well-rounded education helps me have an open mind and be able to relate to each of them. I could have earned a criminology degree at a technical school, but it wouldn’t have given me the range of learning that helps me do my job better. Psychology, sociology, math — it all comes into play here.

“I think people who just want the basics of what they need to know in their field are really limiting themselves,” Sprague continues. “I’m excited about the future. There are upward mobility options here, and I’m ready.”

Amanda Varnam concurs. “I am so glad that I chose to get my undergraduate education at the Mount,” she says. “Classes there offer a lot of what you need in life — patience, research experience, communication skills,and organization. I firmly believe that every subject has something to offer.”

The Employer Perspective

Those are exactly the skills employers value, according to Jen Franchak, director of the Career and Experiential Education Center. “When recruiters contact us with openings, they may initially ask for a specific major they think fills the bill, but we turn the conversation toward the skills they need. Very often there are other majors that mesh nicely, because our liberal arts education means every graduate knows how to communicate well, work in teams, appreciate diversity, make ethical decisions, and look at problems with an interdisciplinary approach,” says Franchak.

Like Lynch, Franchak counsels students to follow their passion. “I tell them to be mindful of career pathways, but choose a course of study that inspires.”

Steve Kissing ’87 did just that, electing to get his degree in liberal arts. He recalls with fondness some of the professors who inspired him: Sister Peg McPeak in philosophy, Fran Harmon in history and Tom Seibert in English.

“They opened my mind to different ways of looking out upon the world,” Kissing says. “I learned to view things from different angles and perspectives, through the lenses of art, history, literature, philosophy. I found it all very empowering, and I came away with a sense that I could go out and contribute in the world of business, bringing this energy for learning along with me.”

Today he is vice president and creative director of Barefoot Proximity, a direct marketing and advertising agency with more than 2,000 employees in 59 locations around the globe.

“The business that I’m in and the clients I service are very layered, diverse and ever-changing. Every day we’re expected to wrap our minds around something new and different — a new product, new technology, new consumer type,” Kissing explains. “The liberal arts-educated mind is quick to deal with all of that.”

A National Report Card

A recent national study shows that Kissing, Varnam, Sprague and Lynch are not alone in relishing their liberal arts backgrounds. Commissioned by the Annapolis Group, a consortium of colleges, the survey found that graduates of liberal arts colleges give theirliberal arts backgrounds. Commissioned by the Annapolis Group, a consortium of colleges, the survey found that graduates of liberal arts colleges give their undergraduate experience higher marks than do graduates of private or public universities. Among the study’s findings for liberal arts graduates:

  • Seventy-six percent rated their college experience highly for preparing them for their first job, compared to 66 percent who attended public flagship universities.
  • Eighty-nine percent reported finding a mentor while in college, compared to 66 percent for public flagships.
  • Seventy-seven percent rated their overall undergraduate experience as “excellent,” compared to 53 percent for graduates of public flagships.
  • Seventy-nine percent reported benefiting “very much” from high-quality teaching-oriented faculty, compared to 63 percent for private universities and 40 for flagships.

Students at liberal arts colleges are more likely than other students to be challenged academically, have grades based on essay exams and written reports, have extensive classroom discussions, conduct faculty-directed research, and participate in service learning.

No real surprises there for Maggie Davis, Ph.D., associate academic dean. “I’ve always believed in the value of liberal arts, so I’m pleased — but not surprised — to see it confirmed by graduates and employers alike.”

She is currently participating in a college wide review of the core curriculum and will be charged with implementing revisions recommended by a faculty team headed by Michael Sontag, Ph.D., chair of general studies and philosophy.

“We want to be sure that we’re preparing students to be ethical leaders in the 21st century,” Davis says. “The core is where we introduce interdisciplinary perspectives and provide the keys to solving complex problems. We’re taking a hard look at how we take the Mount’s mission and be what we need to be to serve our students and community in the future.”

The Core Gets an Update

Revising the core is a complex undertaking, to be sure. It affects every department, every undergraduate student. Care has to be taken to ensure that a core curriculum provides the foundation for learning and still allows time for discipline-specific requirements, all within a reasonable time frame for the student.

“No question, the complexity of the task is a challenge,” Sontag says of the charge for his committee. “So I was surprised at the level of agreement we were able to get from our faculty on what we think students need from their liberal arts and science education.

“On the one hand,” Sontag explains, “our core curriculum needs to develop particular skills that students need — writing, critical thinking, quantitative reasoning, and ethical reasoning. And on the other side is to generate the ability to think deeply about the ‘big questions’ of life: What’s important to me, what’s my purpose, how should I treat others? Intellectual curiosity, broad perspective, and a love of lifelong learning shouldn’t end when you graduate. That’s where our faculty agree.”

From that agreement came the committee’s Statement of Guiding Principles, and that in turn will lead to the specific learning outcomes that can be assessed over time. This semester the team will focus on issues of core curriculum design, determining what content students will need and how courses will be integrated. The final step for the team will be establishing a process of assessing how goals are being met.

“What’s special about a Mount education,” Jen Franchak says, “is that we really balance a liberal arts education with ethical leadership and career opportunities. We attract students of character who embrace our roots of giving back through service. Employers and graduate schools recognize the strength of our education, and that’s reflected in our graduates’ success. Consistently, more than 90 percent of our students report having definitive plans within six months of graduation. That’s a record to be proud of.”