By Anna Cincotta, Opinions Editor
The sweeping curricular goals of a liberal arts institution like Gettysburg College suggest that we churn out perfect graduates—both experts in their chosen fields of study and well-rounded future professionals dedicated to bettering the world around them.
Liberal arts students leave college to pursue careers where their curiosity, flexibility, and interdisciplinary skills help them succeed … and they’re successful in the real world because of their decision to dedicate four years to developing academic dexterity.
Our mission statement responds with a resounding yes to this uncertainty. It underscores the “power of a liberal arts education to help students develop critical thinking skills, broad vision, effective communication, a sense of the inter-relatedness of all knowledge, sensitivity to the human condition, and a global perspective, all necessary to enable students to realize their full potential for responsible citizenship.”
But, despite this reassurance, we still build up the transition from a college campus to a bloodthirsty workforce—especially if we’re unsure about our post-grad plans.
And to state the obvious, there’s no shortage of these undecided, uncertain undergrads at Gettysburg College. I mean, I should know. I’m one of them. I’m biting my nails, swallowing hard, and chugging coffee with the rest of the junior class. I think about law school periodically, as a Political Science major, because I like to pretend every few weeks that my career has a defined path.
I chose to apply to and attend a liberal arts college because I wanted small class sizes and lively debate. Opportunities for experiential learning and encouragement from my professors to study abroad. The option to explore all of my interests and leave with a breadth of knowledge. A close campus community.
It was about halfway through my sophomore spring when I realized I was sabotaging myself in terms of these academic aspirations.
In my decision to double major, and then triple major, I’d used up all the free space in my remaining three semesters on campus. No time for that Women and Gender Studies class I’ve been wanting to take since my first year, and I’d have to forget about that second writing class if I wanted to graduate on time.
I had convinced myself that my social science degree wouldn’t be enough when I graduated. After some thought, I decided to meet with my advisor. In one sentence, Professor Scott Boddery made it clear to me that I was missing the point of a liberal arts degree.
“Intellectual agility is what makes you employable,” he said. “Not double majoring.”
I left that meeting feeling less bogged down by different curricular and and major requirements and more inspired to take advantage of the years I have left as an undergraduate student.
But the most unsettling part of this whole realization? Letting go of the double major craze dominating campus culture (in 2019, 18.2% of the Gettysburg College graduating class double majored, up from 15.2% in 2018) actually sparked an interest in so many more academic interests across disciplines.
When I stopped buying into the false reality perpetuated on this campus that scares students into thinking they’re not prepared for the real world if their classes don’t connect neatly to their career aspirations, I started to feel like I was finally preparing for the workforce with a true liberal arts mentality. Just because you’re an Organization and Management Studies major doesn’t mean you can’t take an interesting literature or history course. English majors shouldn’t shy away from taking a semester of Biology if they liked it in high school. The striking disconnect between the liberal arts promise and our campus culture shortchanges students by putting them in boxes. By major, that is. I knew who would be in my 300-level political science class this semester before walking in the first day, and not because I’d seen the roster beforehand. To a certain extent, there’s nothing wrong with that. And my argument here isn’t to do away with majors. We need specialization of some kind in our undergraduate experience.
But we also need to achieve, institutionally, what we set out to do in our mission statement. Small class sizes inspire discussion and participation, but how much are we really getting out of these debates if we keep hearing the same voices, in the same types of classes, every day? How is sameness going to kickstart intellectual agility, and impart the “broad vision” and “sense of the inter-relatedness of all knowledge” promised to us when we decide to invest in a liberal arts education?
I’d say that it won’t—and it never will if things don’t change. The power of a liberal arts education lies in its multiplicity. In order to save it at Gettysburg College, we’re going to need an intellectual culture shift.
Liberal arts degrees have immense value. The critical thinking and analytical skills students develop through curricular requirements, if taken seriously, have the potential to change the lens through which we view the world.
And our mission statement, pipe dream or not, sets great goals. Attainable ones, too, if we prioritize the liberal arts in the way we’ve already claimed to.
This article appeared on page 22 of the September 26, 2019 edition of The Gettysburgian’s magazine.