Someone at Emory once asked me, “Are you business or pre-med?” I shook my head, an irritated look growing on my face. He didn’t ask a simple, “What’s your major?” Rather, he had the audacity to narrow down all 86 majors that Emory offers to only two choices.
I now realize it’s hard to navigate this University without hearing similar questions. This routine interaction points to a larger issue in the Emory community: the emphasis on pre-professional education has cast a large shadow over the liberal arts. Unless we acknowledge the importance of the liberal arts, and put forth genuine effort in pursuing our general education requirements (GERs), we will fail to benefit from a comprehensive academic experience.
Emory’s Office of Undergraduate Admission defines the liberal arts as the study of diverse academic areas, so that students receive “an intellectual grounding in many fields” as opposed to “technical training for a single field.” The purpose is to equip students to think independently, critically and creatively.
Emory prides itself on being a liberal arts university, but its student culture says otherwise. For students, GERs are seen as obstacles that we ought to complete as quickly as possible rather than opportunities to explore different fields. This issue is not unique to pre-professional students. As a humanities and social sciences student, I have yet to take a science or math class at Emory. Non-science students enroll in biological anthropology (ANT 201) or “baby bio” (BIOL 120) to fulfill their SNT-L credit, because they’re supposedly less challenging. The University can allow students to take some GER credits as Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory, to encourage exploration in new departments without the fear of receiving poor grades. My hope is that students will not be afraid to seize the opportunity to take classes in departments outside their major, instead of intentionally avoiding them.
If you came to Emory because of its top-notch nursing and business programs, or for its wide array of resources available for pre-med students, the liberal arts are still extremely relevant to you. First, students may discover a new interest of which they were previously unaware. Additionally, a liberal arts education emphasizes important soft skills that are transferable to any profession, such as independent and critical thinking, effective communication and compassion. These skills are what distinguishes between those who are average and those who are excellent at their profession. In a 2016 Forbes article, former Associate Dean of Admissions at Amherst College (Mass.) Willard Dix argued that the liberal arts teach students how to see other people’s perspectives and understand our own, which can be more important than ever in politically polarized times.
Last semester, I read some of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X’s writings in a sociology class, and we openly discussed our opinions in small groups. I learned that listening to those who have different opinions is a prerequisite for empathy, yet we don’t do it nearly enough. A liberal arts education encourages us to engage with different ideas as we shape our own.
The University must be held accountable for fostering an academic environment grounded in the liberal arts. The Goizueta Business School could consider requiring students to begin the BBA program in their junior year, instead of giving them the option to start Spring semester of their sophomore year. This way, students have more time to explore the liberal arts and won’t feel pressured to scramble through their prerequisites.
While the University must take active steps in making policies and plans, they are ultimately futile if not matched with cultural change. Students need to change their attitudes toward the liberal arts education; it can lead you to an entirely new interest, or nurture skills for personal and professional development. I encourage all students to try a class in a new field, go to office hours to engage with professors outside of your department, or attend events like lectures and literary readings. College isn’t only a place where you train for a profession, but it will become that if we fail to engage with the liberal arts.
One way Emory can transform student culture would be to make a liberal arts education more accessible to all of its students. Some are eager to choose a pre-professional track rather than explore the liberal arts because of financial pressures like the high cost of tuition or a desire to support their families with high salaries. Students with financial burdens may attempt to graduate early, but providing scholarships can encourage them to attend Emory for the full four years to explore different departments. The University should continue to help alleviate students’ budgetary concerns about the liberal arts through programs like the Liberal Arts Edge.
I’m not trying to convert all of the pre-med and business students to creative writing majors. I’m not trying to convince you to drop out of the BBA program or to give up on your pursuit of becoming a doctor or a nurse. Rather, I challenge you to think critically about the value of a liberal arts education. Instead of immediately asking someone how they’re going to find a job as an English major, take the time to ask them how their academic experience has influenced their personal growth and consider how it could impact yours.
Most of us spent our high school careers participating in activities that we thought would get us in the door of the nation’s top universities. Now, as college students, we often focus on what we can do to get that successful, dream job. It is important to be prudent and goal-oriented, but there’s no rush. Take advantage of Emory’s GERs. I hope you appreciate these years where you have the privilege and opportunities to learn anything you want.
Annie Li (22C) is from Montgomery, N.J.