The Case for the Liberal Arts

Gustavus students, faculty, and alums on why they teach it, how they use it, why they choose it.
Posted on August 22nd, 2019 by

Four percent of undergraduates nationwide attended a liberal arts college, yet such colleges have produced nine percent of Fortune 500 CEOs, 23 percent of U.S.-educated Nobel Laureates, 27 percent of U.S. Presidents, and 14 percent of tenured Harvard Law Professors. Seventy-four percent of surveyed employers recommend the liberal arts as “the best way to prepare for success in today’s global economy.” And the top five attributes employers want to see on students’ resumes, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, are all outcomes of a liberal arts education:
1. Problem-solving skills and the ability to work in a team (tied)
2. Written communication skills
3. Leadership
4. Strong work ethic
5. Analytical/quantitative skills, verbal communication skills, and initiative (all tied)

Gustavus proudly embraces liberal arts learning. Here’s what our own professors, students, and alums say about why they chose it, and what it means.

From the Provost
Dr. Brenda Kelly

“Before I joined the Provost Office in 2015, I was a full-time faculty member in the biology and chemistry departments at Gustavus for 13 years. From both a faculty member and Provost perspective, I can attest that the role of the liberal arts here extends far beyond requiring nine courses from nine different disciplinary areas.
     Here students practice listening, discussing, and constructively disagreeing. They are empowered to accept social responsibility, to consider how they can meaningfully contribute to and reshape the world. Here students develop the intercultural awareness and understanding essential to an interdependent economy and world, as well as the nimbleness and flexibility to successfully navigate it. They learn to recognize what they know, identify and seek out what they do not know, and effectively communicate throughout.
     When I was in the classroom, I enjoyed delivering the best of a liberal arts education here at Gustavus: interjecting interdisciplinary concepts into my disciplinary courses, mentoring students to help strengthen their communication, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills, learning and growing with my students and my faculty colleagues. I relished opportunities to draw upon the liberal arts experiences of my students to inform and enhance their work and our work together—through collaboration in the classroom and laboratory; by researching, synthesizing, and integrating information; by using multi-disciplinary perspectives and approaches to consider questions that are relevant to the great challenges of our time.
     Why does this matter? Almost all of these challenges require an interdisciplinary approach. Professionals today are asked to learn new techniques, to delve into areas outside their disciplines, and to work collaboratively with individuals who have very different expertise and perspectives. Just one example: Many cancers involve changes in gene expression, protein folding, cellular function, physiological function (to name a few); it is only through understanding of the whole will we identify effective cures.
     At Gustavus, we are producing such professionals. Through their liberal arts experiences as Gusties, our students gain the depth of their primary discipline and its dominant technologies, and the breadth of cross-discipline thinking. Combined, this is the outcome of the Gustavus liberal arts: Our students can access a multitude of careers both within and outside of their major discipline. They leave here well-prepared for a life of learning and action that benefits the world, a life of leadership and service, a life of progress and purpose.”

Paschal Kyoore | Modern Languages, Literatures, and Cultures; African Studies; Latin American, Latinx, and Caribbean Studies

It has meaning and impact. Says Kyoore, “What I enjoy most about teaching at a small liberal arts institution is, first and foremost, the feeling that what I do has a meaningful, palpable, impact on students, and that this is recognized and cherished by the College. Also, it is a great feeling to know that people really mean it when they say that their mission is to build a community spirit.”

Professor Heidi Meyer ’98 | Nursing

It connects us all. “As a nurse, you never practice alone and are an integral part of the healthcare team,” says Meyer. “Our students bring arts and humanities perspectives into a healthcare discipline heavily focused on evidence-based practice.” As nurses, they provide holistic care. “Having a broader perspective develops our nursing graduates to safely care for individuals, families, communities, and the greater global society.”

Professor Betsy Byers | Art and Art History

It’s a great foundation for artists. “If it weren’t for my liberal arts undergraduate education, I would have never become an artist,” says Byers, who started painting with oil to fulfill a liberal arts general education credit. “Making art is essentially a liberal arts endeavor,” she says. “We use creative problem solving to address concerns that live in the cultural, social, historic, economic, political, and ecological realms. There is no better place to begin.”

Professor Chuck Niederitter | Physics

It creates excellent communicators. At Gustavus, “students will not only receive a great education in their chosen field(s),” says Niederitter, “they will be able to speak and write with confidence, have a good understanding of their place in the world, the connections between seemingly disparate concepts.” In his particular disciplines, “Physics and astronomy students study other sciences as well, and maybe more importantly, learn about other ways of studying and understanding the universe. They also learn to be better communicators than students who study at other kinds of institutions.”

Professor Lisa Heldke ’82 | Philosophy and Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies plus Nobel Conference Chair

It’s liberating. “‘Liberal arts’ isn’t some property that a discipline has, or doesn’t have, by nature,” says Heldke. “It is an approach to a subject matter; a way of thinking that liberates. Gustavus is a liberal arts college not because it has departments of classics and philosophy and English, but because it teaches those subjects—as well as communication studies, nursing, and health fitness, and others—in ways that encourage students to understand themselves as interpreters of, and transformers of, the world.”

Professor Darío Sánchez-González | Modern Languages, Literatures, and Cultures; Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies; Latin American, Latinx, and

It helps us to become more human, and humane. “When I describe what the liberal arts mean for me I often use a quote by Terence: ‘I am human; nothing human is alien to me,’” he says. “Liberal arts students build adaptability, resilience, and—more important than anything else—care for others. Mere knowledge or skills do not mean much without responsibility and ethical reflection. This applies to any discipline.”

Student Kylee Brimsek ’20 | nursing major

Everything is connected. Nursing wasn’t on her radar until a Tanzania J-Term with nursing majors. Then, a public health class. “It opened my eyes to how health care is related to everything—communication and economics and business and language,” she says. “We talk about patients’ cultural backgrounds, and respecting them. Because of my theology and cultural anthropology classes, I have a leg up.”

Student Emma Myhre ’19 | Theatre and Communication Studies majors, English and Arts Administration minors

Passions are lit. “I wanted to explore what I was interested in,” Myhre says. She ignited her love of theatre—“I wouldn’t have declared my theatre major if I hadn’t been able to audition while not a theatre major.” She can’t imagine college any other way. “Where else do you get such a direct line of learning about everything happening around us in such an interconnected way?”

Student Ehsan Ali Asghar ’19 | Economics major, Political Science minor

No stone is left unturned. There aren’t liberal arts colleges in his native Pakistan, so Asghar takes full advantage here. He’s learned from classes in human anatomy, statistics, golf, sports philosophy, and the Bible. “I’m a finance guy. I love my field, but at the end of the day I will have no regrets. I’ve tried all these things, met all these people from different backgrounds. It has made me more culturally aware.”

Student Ben Rorem ’19 | Physics major, Three Crowns Curriculum

We become well-rounded. He came to Gustavus to study hard science. But the Three Crowns Curriculum lured him with the big question, “What does it mean to be human?” The writing skills, he says, were a bonus. “I know that will be necessary in a career.” So will interpersonal communication and critical thinking skills. “People who study science can get narrowly focused in their field. I think liberal arts and the humanities make well-rounded people.”

Alum Marta Hemmingson VanBeek ’93 | Chief of Staff, University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics

“Gustavus had a profound implication in how I practice medicine,” she says. “It helped me be a better listener, to understand and value the varied interests of others.” When hiring, she looks for “well rounded interests. Is the person interested in other things outside of medicine?” And she looks for a willingness to accept a challenge. “At Gustavus, we were encouraged to ask the hard questions and to relish the difficult conversation.”

Alum Michael Marcotte ’08 | Producer and on-air personality, KSTP TV

“I know those Gustavus grads have good qualities,” a hiring manager told him when he was short on experience. In Marcotte, those qualities include, “a diverse wealth of knowledge,” he says, partly gleaned through co-curricular activities like Student Senate. “I learned how to effectively say no, and so many other skills that apply today.” When a Gustavus résumé crosses his path, he takes notice. “I look for people who want to learn and aren’t afraid of stepping out there. Gusties show up.” 

Alum Steven Epp ’80 | Actor, playwright, director, Theatre de la Jeune Lune and The Moving Company

The liberal arts define Epp’s theatre training at Gustavus. “Everybody did everything,” he says. “It was very disciplined.” He carries it with him, and the lesson of intentional storytelling too. “There was a great emphasis on ‘What are you putting into the world, why are we telling that story now?’ That’s been the bottom line of any piece of theater I’ve been involved in.” In new talent, he seeks, “people who use their own imaginations, are open to other ways of thinking, and can engage with what’s going on in the room.”


Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication Luc Hatlestad


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