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ND encourages liberal arts education

Marisa Iati | Tuesday, January 29, 2013

While technology jobs dominate the top 10 of U.S. News’ list of the 100 Best Jobs of 2013, Notre Dame continues to emphasize the value of a liberal arts education.

Notre Dame requires students to complete 14 liberal arts courses in different disciplines in order to graduate, according to the University website. In 2010, there were 2,333 students enrolled in the College of Arts and Letters. The College of Engineering enrolled 937 students the same year.   

Dean Peter Kilpatrick of the College of Engineering said technology education and the liberal arts do not need to be mutually exclusive. He said a liberal arts background benefits engineers because it is important they can analyze, think creatively and develop designs.

Engineers with such skills are in a unique position to shape public policy, Kilpatrick said.

“We should have more senators and congressmen and presidents who are engineers, not just lawyers,” he said. “I think engineers very much need an appreciation for the social impact of the work that they do in terms of building infrastructure.”

Students outside the College of Engineering should be exposed to quantitative analysis, Kilpatrick said. He said several departments within the College of Arts and Letters are starting to introduce these concepts.

“A lot of the engineering students that go into analytics jobs could just as easily be business students who are properly skilled in analytics or even Arts and Letters students who take coursework in quantifying things, data analytics, that sort of thing,” Kilpatrick said.

Dean John McGreevy of the College of Arts and Letters agreed students with liberal arts majors could work in technological fields.

“A company like Google is hiring lots of people to design programs and applications coming from a liberal arts background because they want the creativity or the ability to think across cultures that they associate with a liberal arts background,” McGreevy said.

A liberal arts background enables students to address life’s big questions, McGreevy said. He said the abilities to write, speak and analyze data prepare students for leadership roles.

“It’s not just about obtaining skills, although skills are important,” he said. “It’s also what kind of society should we have, how do we think about inequality, how do we think about human dignity, how do we think about the environment, does God exist. We want our students who are going to become leaders to be engaged in that conversation.”

Kilpatrick said each of the University’s academic departments should interact more closely with other disciplines to enrich all programs.

“People in civil engineering who are deeply interested in the beauty of the built infrastructure might find ways to interact much more closely with architecture, with industrial design,” he said. “You could do that, presumably, for virtually every discipline.”

The nation needs more engineers, Kilpatrick said. He said many more college students in China major in engineering or engineering technology than do in the United States.

“We’re going to run the risk of them out-producing the [United States] … and that could mean problems for our economy,” Kilpatrick said. “We won’t have the command over the market in technological products that maybe we enjoyed in the last part of the 20th century.”

Kilpatrick said Notre Dame is working to ensure students who want to study engineering can complete the coursework. Interest in engineering is also growing, he said.

“We need to be careful that we don’t retain such a high percentage that we don’t enable students to figure out, ‘Do I really love engineering, or am I doing this for the job?” Kilpatrick said. “We really want students to discern properly, ‘What’s your vocation as a person?’”

Kilpatrick said the University should modernize its general education requirements.

“I think we want to continue to have an emphasis on the human sciences … but I think we need to refresh it and think about how do we best equip students for the 21st century,” he said. “We live in times that are very different from even 20 years ago.”

Kilpatrick said he suggests instituting an introduction to technology literacy course so students become informed enough to enter the public dialogue about technological issues.

“There are really important decisions that our government is making that the majority of our country can’t weigh in on because they don’t know enough,” Kilpatrick said.

McGreevy said although he does not see a need for a technology literacy course, he anticipates the University will soon reexamine its core requirements.

“Our core requirements haven’t changed in quite a while … and they’re there for good reasons,” McGreevy said. “It’s always good to be looking at them and thinking through what set of requirements make most sense at the current moment for a great Catholic university.”

The University aims to prepare students for more than just their first jobs, McGreevy said.

“It’s a lifetime investment, we hope, in developing those writing and reading and speaking skills,” he said.

McGreevy said although skepticism about the value of a liberal arts education exists, he is more convinced than ever of its value.

“Our experience at Notre Dame tells us that liberal arts students get jobs and they get good jobs,” he said. “But even more important, the investment that our students make in becoming better writers, better speakers, better able to analyze data, prepares them for their careers over the long haul and indeed prepares them, we hope, to be better citizens, better people, better capacity to make a real contribution to society.”

Contact Marisa Iati at miati@nd.edu