Campus News

Remarks by Amanda Norejko, Class of 1998 on Sarah and James Bowdoin Day
September 19, 1997

Story posted September 19, 1997

"The Liberal Arts at Bowdoin: Into the Next Century?"

As we approach a new millennium, Bowdoin College faces the challenge of adapting a 200 year old liberal arts institution to meet the needs of the future. Much is being discussed about how Bowdoin will keep up with technology and the changing world. Administrators are concerned with the finances, the image and the technological resources of the institution to ensure that Bowdoin can successfully survive into the 21st century. Students are concerned with acquiring marketable skills in a world where a college degree is no longer a one way ticket to "the good life." Despite the urgency of these concerns, there is a greater issue at stake than the decline of Bowdoin's popularity or a student having to take a lower-paying job after graduation. In times like these, the greatest danger of all is losing sight of our educational purpose. A balance must be found so that we don't misplace the principles of a liberal arts education because we are so busy looking ahead that we don't notice what we are leaving behind. The value of a liberal arts education is under attack from many different fronts. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, in a commencement address to Stanford graduates about the important questions that they would be asking in their careers, quipped that liberal arts majors would be asking "Would you like fries with that hamburger?" The very basis of our education here at Bowdoin is being criticized by people asking questions like "What kind of a job can you expect to get with an Art History major?" Bowdoin College and its students increasingly find themselves defending their educational choices. Many people are now asking what the fate of the liberal arts will be in the 21st century. At this point in history, we are facing a more advanced technological world in which new inventions in computers, discoveries in science and information in the social sciences are exploding onto the scene. However, with all of this new knowledge and technology comes a challenge: not to let the inventions of humans become a detriment to humanity. We are witnessing a world in which humans no longer seem to care what the effect of their actions will be on the future of humankind. The product is the goal, regardless of the consequences. The possibilities of space exploration, animal cloning, computer technology, improvements in governmental and economic systems and other advancements of our time are virtually limitless. It is precisely for this reason that the liberal arts are so crucial. The relevance of the liberal arts in today's society and in the future is its emphasis on character formation rather than simply practical vocational expertise. In the liberal arts curriculum, separate disciplines are seldom completely separate. Students gain understanding about an issue from many different viewpoints: from the scientific to the philosophical to the historic to the psychological. Only by examining a subject from many different angles can a fuller understanding of its greater implications be gained. Especially in an age like this one, we need the ethics and broader vision that come from a liberal arts background to help us learn to deal with our new discoveries. We need the free thinking which comes from having studied literature, art and philosophy to keep us from becoming automatons trudging ceaselessly toward a more advanced, yet less user-friendly world. We need to take the ideals of the liberal arts education seriously and re-assert its continued relevance in the world of today and tomorrow. An important first step in ensuring that we do not lose sight of humanism in the name of progress is by promoting and taking part in the liberal arts experience here at Bowdoin. We must establish the foundations of character, open-mindedness and empathy through an education based upon building a multi-faceted individual within each one of us. First, let us examine the role of Bowdoin students. How many times have students groaned about fulfilling their distribution requirements because they don't see the intrinsic value in taking a non-Eurocentric course beyond that it will allow them to earn their degree? How often have students hidden their opinions in the classroom because it might not pay to disagree with the majority and thus hindered the process of learning through intellectual debate? Why are students afraid to fight for what is important to them and thus do not learn to stand on their principles? Why do students look for the easy "A" rather than expanding their knowledge with a course which will introduce them to new and challenging ideas? The answer that people often give is apathy. They say that Bowdoin students are too self-absorbed or closed-minded to bother expanding their horizons or making their voices heard. If this is true, we have failed to learn the important lessons of a liberal arts education and our Bowdoin education means little, regardless of whether we go on to attend a prestigious law or medical school or make six figures a year by the age of 25. A more precise assessment of the situation reveals, however, that apathy is not the best answer. Bowdoin students care a great deal. The problem is that we are facing multiple pressures which affect our priorities and make it difficult for us to think in terms of the distant future and the societal effects of our individual choices. That we may have lost sight of the higher principles of the liberal arts education is not a surprise. With pressure from parents and peers to be successful and earn enough money to live comfortably, it is no wonder that Bowdoin students are increasingly concerned with how their education will translate into real-world dollars and cents. Our futures are not as assured as those of our parents' generation who earned college degrees. The job market is a lot more competitive and changeable. In response, we have become a generation of people exchanging dollars for degrees in the hope of making more dollars. We are learning to concede to those in power in order to ensure good future connections rather than fighting for what we believe. We are learning to look at numbers in choosing courses of study much more than intangible values such as intellectual enlightenment. We are caught in the system and steered away from the true purposes of the liberal arts education. What we must keep in mind, however, is that a liberal arts education in its truest form provides one with the depth of understanding and breadth of vision to adapt and innovate to be a success in any field. When some of my classmates went to the Career Planning Center and looked up information on the career field in which they were interested, they were upset to find out that the majority of people in that field had not gone to liberal arts colleges, but specialized in that field early in their education. The prospects for the liberal arts graduate seemed grim. Then, these students looked up the backgrounds of the CEOs and upper-level management of those companies. The majority of them had a background in the liberal arts. Their education had given them the character and vision necessary to rise up the corporate ladder. Therefore, liberal arts graduates are not resigned to unemployment or minimum wage jobs for life, but rather, are likely to rise to the top of their field. Even with this reassurance, it is difficult for some students to completely grasp the importance of the qualities of a liberal arts education. One reason for this is that the educational institution itself has lost sight of those qualities. How can we blame the students for their shortsightedness and lack of intellectual curiosity when the College itself sends signals that it might be doing exactly the same? The College is in danger of becoming more interested in the bottom line than in the breadth and depth of the educational and interpersonal experiences of the students. Many would argue that Bowdoin is failing to promote the humanism of the liberal arts education. Some would say that the College fails to carry out its purpose because it shortchanges some portions of the curriculum, for instance, by not providing adequate performance spaces for the performing arts, or by having too few professors in departments with the most majors, or by not adding a comparable amount of resources in conjunction with the increase in enrollment. More fundamentally, the College is doing all of these things because it has fallen into the same trap as many of its students, on a larger scale. Bowdoin has come to see itself more as a business venture than as the embodiment of the noble principles of the liberal arts education as it once did. Like a clever entrepreneur, Bowdoin deals in creating an image and attempting to make this place run in a more cost-effective manner. These are intelligent business decisions. However, when they are the focus of the College Administration's intellectual energies to the exclusion of thinking about academics, the mission of the institution can be easily lost. By spending money on decorations rather than curriculum development, neglecting to be responsive to the needs of overpopulated departments, making priorities for improvements to the College which tend to alienate students with certain interests, and by general misallocation of funds so that the areas which really need improvement are largely ignored, Bowdoin has made it more difficult for students to see the value of certain portions of the curriculum. If the College doesn't seem to think these parts of the curriculum are important, the students will be less likely to see them that way. If the College seems to spend more time worrying about financial matters than making strides in academics, then students will put the emphasis on earning potential over learning. This is a grave mistake because it goes against everything for which Bowdoin College stands. Bowdoin College has a mission in the liberal arts traditior as set out in 1906 by its seventh president, William DeWitt Hyde, in "The Offer of the College." Those words, printed in our viewbook to tell prospective students what we are all about, are so familiar, but when we really listen to them and think about what they say, we must consider

To be at home in all lands and all ages; to count nature a familiar acquaintance, and art an intimate friend; to carry the keys to the world's library in your pocket, and feel its resources behind you in whatever tasks you undertake; to make hosts of friends who are to be leaders in all walks of life; to lose yourself in generous enthusiasms and cooperate with others for common ends -- this is the offer of the College for the best four years of your life ...?
To me, it means, that the principles of the liberal arts education are important in forming the leaders of tomorrow and that Bowdoin students, should do everything we can to continue the commitment to that tradition because it has benefits that cannot be measured in dollars and cents both for our time here and for the future.

As we enter the 21st century, we continue to encounter breakthroughs in technology which could have monumental impact upon the lives of our descendants. Bowdoin College and its students must defend the liberal arts education and its goal of fostering a noble, compassionate, understanding character in the next generation of leaders in all walks of life. The College must examine its priorities to ensure that it still offers a strong, traditional, liberal arts education while continuing to grow and change with the advances of the coming millennium. We, as students, must examine our individual choices to ensure that we are taking full advantage of the Offer of the College and learning the true lessons of the liberal arts education.

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