The benefits of the liberal arts

Since I graduated in 2011, the benefits of a liberal arts degree have been apparent to me. An educational approach that I was initially skeptical about came through and delivered more than anything I would have hoped to get out of a narrowly specialized degree.

I wasn’t always convinced. At Colorado College, I quickly chose to major in mathematical economics and filled my first blocks exclusively with classes that would help me fulfill its requirements. Soon however my inevitable immersion in the liberal arts began – I left my stronghold in Palmer hall. And I t took different classes, like Buddhism and history, and I minored in environmental issues. I learned that at the core of the liberal arts was an interdisciplinary approach to learning. This was an approach that built bridges between disciplines and offered a solution to contemporary issues.

The world outside of the Colorado College bubble confirmed this, as it seemed to be crumbling under the weight of problems which urgently called for a multidisciplinary mindset. The demise of Lehman Brothers soon underscored the importance of psychology in economic models, while climate change called for the combination of social science with climate science, in itself an aggregation of numerous scientific disciplines.

Out of college, I managed to get a job analyzing climate change policies. I was fortunate to join a highly talented team with members holding specialized masters and PhDs. Our work required a deep understanding of both public policy and economics. This is where my liberal arts degree kicked in big time.

I quickly became comfortable reading the convoluted legislative texts (something some of my colleagues felt squeamish about) – shout out to Phil Kannan’s block in environmental policy – and used theory from environmental economics – thanks Mark Smith – to understand the logic behind climate change policies. These enhanced the quantitative nature of my work and meant that I was not only able to crunch numbers, but present to audiences what the numbers meant for climate policy.

My experience is hardly unique. Nor are the liberal arts only applicable to climate change. A positive change in any field is commonly associated with “thinking outside of the box”. Malcolm Gladwell advances this notion in his latest book David and Goliath, where he praises the hidden strengths of people with an outsider’s perspective. Outsiders, while knowledgeable, have not dedicated their mindset and belief system on a narrow view of the world. They are the ones who are more likely to question, and change, the status quo.

People with a multidisciplinary mindset can also be better at making predictions, as Nate Silver argues in the Signal and the Noise. It takes an appreciation of complex interactions between systems belonging to different disciplines to be a successful forecaster. Similarly, it takes a journalist with a scientific understanding to raise ecological awareness, just as it takes an artist with an environmental attunement to energize and inspire others.

Have you graduated from a liberal arts school? Then make the most of the advantages the liberal arts have conferred on you. Because you probably have a lot to offer compared to peers with narrowly specialized degrees.

Image credit: Esther Chan ’16 Colorado College

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