Glenn Memorial Methodist Church sits near Emory Village (Ellie Fivas/Managing Editor).

As I prepare to sign up for courses for next semester, I am reminded of a special quality of Emory University: the value we place on the liberal arts. There are so many courses afforded to students, and I often struggle to pick just a few to fill my semester. This problem is compounded by the need to take certain courses to fill requirements, another hallmark of the liberal arts that can be frustrating for students as they try to make it all fit. However, it seems that the simultaneous appreciation and frustration with the liberal arts are a microcosm of the problems the liberal arts face today.

For example, the University of West Virginia’s decision to terminate 28 majors, mainly in the humanities, marks how the liberal arts are coming under increasing scrutiny across the country. At the same time, Emory administration plans to hire up to 30 new liberal arts faculty and expand creative programming over the next three to four years under the Emory Initiative for Arts and Humanistic Inquiry, highlighting a recent embrace of the liberal arts in higher education.

In light of changing technology and job markets, students, parents, economists and university leaders have long debated whether the liberal arts are worth the price. However, the decline of the liberal arts is a symptom of a larger societal shift, and conversations about their current value are misplaced. Rather, university administrations must adapt liberal arts education to better fit the needs of today. At the same time, we as a society must consider the value of morality, ethics and knowledge in our world and what that means for our future. 

A liberal arts education requires students, regardless of major, to take courses across the humanities and sciences to become free thinkers rather than mere workers. There are less than 200 private liberal arts colleges across the country, including Emory, but many more schools emphasize the values of liberal arts in their approaches to undergraduate education. Despite the prevalence of pre-professionalism at Emory, the University emphasizes the liberal arts through general education requirements, as well as individual departments’ approaches to teaching and learning. 

The differences between these plans, however, demonstrate a key criticism of the liberal arts in recent decades. According to University of Pennsylvania Vice Provost for Global Initiatives Ezekiel Emanuel, a longtime reduction of academic requirements has left students underprepared to face the ever-growing moral and ethical dilemmas of our world. Whereas current sophomores, juniors and seniors are required to take two science, two history and two non-language humanities courses at Emory, first-year students only need to take one of each of these courses to graduate. Based on Emanuel’s argument, the reduction of these requirements, even if it allows students to take more specialized courses, means that the University is churning out less well-rounded students. In turn, students may have the necessary knowledge to be successful in their field but not the social responsibility, ethics and morals required to be a world citizen. However, Oxford College Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Valerie Molyneaux told The Emory Wheel that these reduced requirements allows students to freely explore their interests. Through this lens, the reduction of requirements does not represent a de-emphasis of the liberal arts, but rather an encouragement of individual exploration over mandatory study.

Although Associate Teaching Professor of Sociology Tracy Scott said liberal arts institutions are under constant pressure to provide a degree that’s “worth something” on the job market, students are often misguided on what skills, knowledge and experiences will be valuable in the workforce. It is not only specific, practical skills that get students jobs, but also the ability to think, ask questions and adapt — skills that are developed through the liberal arts.

“The best way to prepare students to address society’s complex problems is by teaching them to think critically and broadly across fields of knowledge, which is at the heart of a strong liberal arts education,” Oxford Dean Badia Ahad wrote in an email to the Wheel.

Still, there is no ethics or religion test to enter investment banking, Big Tech or medicine. Therefore, instead of exploring different major options, many students opt for what they believe to be defined, pre-professional pathways. Additionally, I’ve noticed that students who are worried about graduate school and their GPA are more likely to avoid challenging courses. Unfortunately, this process of specialization and risk avoidance can become self-enforcing as students talk to each other. This is especially true at a school like Emory, where the prevalence of high achievers and pre-professionalism creates a culture focused more on career prospects than on learning.

“We bring [students] here and we then say, ‘Don’t worry about your grades,’ even though we know you will have plans following Emory that need those grades upon which you will be assessed,” Molyneaux said. “We say, ‘Be curious, take risks, challenge yourself.’ I don’t think we’re going to stop saying that, but I think we want to be cognizant of the situation in which you’re actually swimming.” 

All of these perspectives make clear that the problems facing the liberal arts are complex and multifaceted. However, there are concrete steps that undergraduate institutions can take to better prepare students to be the leaders of tomorrow while not shying away from the values and ideals of a liberal arts education.

With technology rapidly changing job markets, liberal arts institutions must learn from those pioneering these innovations and find ways to incorporate them into their skill-building today, such as using new technologies to contribute to humanities data collection, research and publishing. Additionally, rather than shying away from the use of artificial intelligence (AI), departments should critically consider how they can leverage AI tools to enhance both the liberal arts experience as well as students’ preparedness to enter a dynamic job market.

Emory is already taking the lead in making this happen by hosting a conference on March 22 where faculty will learn from experts about teaching with AI. Ensuring that faculty use these lessons and integrate AI into their teaching is essential to bring disciplines into contact with new technologies and prepare students to live in a world of rapid technological proliferation.

While Universities cannot simply get rid of grades, they can give students ways to explore, learn and grow without harming their GPAs. Emory has taken steps to decrease the pressures that students feel, such as instituting longer times to withdraw from a class without penalty and change to a satisfactory/unsatisfactory grade. Continuing to take these steps is essential in allowing students to flourish as learners. After all, exploration will likely be more successful when students aren’t stressing about grades and assignments.

While programs like internships are often viewed as experiences outside the scope of traditional learning, integrating real-world experience into the classroom is another way that liberal arts institutions can give students the skills they need to be the leaders of tomorrow. Emory is on the right track when it comes to putting this concept into practice. Whether it be the Pathways Center on the Atlanta campus, the Center for Pathways and Purpose at Oxford or one of the many research programs and labs offered by the University, Emory students have ample support to get real-world experience in their potential fields. 

What comes next is ensuring this knowledge and experience is translated back into the classroom to close the feedback loop and directly connect students’ experience with their learning. Once again, Emory seems to be doing well. All students, starting with the Class of 2027, are required to take an experiential learning course such as “Introduction to Ethics,” where students engage in outside-of-the-classroom service work that they reflect on in the context of their learning throughout the semester. Additionally, the University’s new Quality Enhancement Plan will connect students with diverse experiential learning opportunities and require in depth reflection on these opportunities. Other universities should follow Emory’s lead in providing these types of opportunities to students.

While resources like the Pathways Center should play an integral role in connecting students with real-world experiences, they should also be central to showing the multitude of different career paths that students can access by embracing the liberal arts. Whether it be hosting alumni talks or showcasing liberal arts students’ jobs on social media, there are a multitude of ways to highlight the value and importance of the liberal arts in achieving a long, fulfilling career. Through this, the University can start to break student misconceptions of success and encourage exploration, failure and true learning.

However, it is not just undergraduate institutions that need to adapt. Other parties, like students, graduate schools, employers and society as a whole, must embrace the liberal arts as a means to address societal problems.

As students, we should take advantage of the opportunities to explore, learn, fail and grow afforded to us by the liberal arts at Emory. We should celebrate and utilize the changes the University is making while continuing to ask for more. After graduation, we must use our liberal arts education to make the world a better place. Whether in graduate school or industry, we must make clear the value of liberal arts and push our employers to do the same.

While parts of the job market have done a good job of recognizing and placing value in the liberal arts, graduate schools across the country can do better at deemphasizing GPA in their admissions practices. Law schools, for instance, can put less emphasis on students’ GPA, which along with LSAT scores are the most heavily weighted factors in admissions decisions, and instead focus more on extracurriculars, essays and interviews. By assessing student applications more holistically, students will be more willing to take risks and challenges that ultimately reflect positively on their application. Through this, students become both more widely educated and develop into better thinkers and writers, important traits for success in graduate school and the workplace.

We as a society must also consider the value we place on ethics and diversity of thought in our world. In a society that is as polarized as ever and where American discourse largely takes place in echo chambers, we must recognize that change is needed. Embracing the liberal arts can be an important step in addressing the problems our country faces and entrusting the next generation of leaders with the skills they need to confront the moral and ethical dilemmas of the future.

Liberal arts institutions today face challenges from many sides. Through coordinated changes by undergraduate institutions, graduate schools and industry, we can better prepare students to be both the workers and moral leaders of tomorrow. Our world, much like our colleges, may be suffering moral deficiencies. But it is only through the liberal arts that this crisis can be solved.

Pierce McDade (25Ox) is from Bloomington, Ill.

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Pierce McDade (he/him, 25Ox) is from Bloomington, Illinois, majoring in Political Science and Economics on the pre-law track. Outside of the Wheel, Pierce is a first year senator in Oxford SGA and an Admissions Ambassador in the Oxford Student Admission Association. In his free time, Pierce enjoys thrifting, playing Pickleball, and hanging out with friends.