Ka‘ana Mana‘o: A liberal arts education prepares students for life

Physical Anthropology. Environment and Ecology. Reasoning and Critical Thinking.

Civilizations of Asia. What do they have in common? They’re just some of the courses available to our students pursuing their liberal arts associate degree, and if the spectrum of disciplines seems broad, that’s the point.

A liberal arts education prepares students for life. It teaches them how to think, how to understand the human and natural world around them, how to see the bigger picture and where they fit in a continuum of history. Through a curriculum that spans science, history, math, English and philosophy, the world becomes understandable, and the interconnectedness of different disciplines becomes apparent. It is not simply the memorization of facts, rather a liberal arts education seeks to pass on the skill of learning itself so that students will continue to grow and evolve long past the day they receive their degrees.

Why is this important? The world is changing quickly, and the model of pursuing a career at one company is rapidly disappearing. According to the Bureau of Labor statistics, the average worker now stays at each of his or her jobs for 4.4 years. For those born between 1977 and 1997, it’s half that. The ability to learn quickly, think critically and adapt to changing circumstances is a key benefit to a liberal arts education.

The world is also becoming increasingly complex and interdependent. A liberal arts curriculum gives students the opportunity to view contemporary issues through the lens of different disciplines.

In our Environment and Ecology class for example, students don’t simply examine the effect of human interactions on the environment. They also explore the impact of science, technology and values on the global environment and discuss issues related to overpopulation and pollution.

A liberal arts student might also study those issues from the philosophical perspective – how certain veins of thought led to how we value the environment, or from a historical perspective – how civilizations prior to our own have faced ecological challenges.

Because liberal arts spans such a wide variety of disciplines, it’s also ideal for students who would like to explore different academic areas before committing to one field of study for their bachelor’s degree or career.

“Liberal arts encompasses such a broad umbrella of disciplines that with a little guidance, students can hopefully find something that ignites their passion,” said artist and Maui College assistant professor Jennifer Owen. “There’s nothing like seeing that fire light in a student’s eyes when they realize not only can they get a degree in something they enjoy doing, but they can launch a career and actually get paid too.”

A liberal arts degree gives students an advantage when it comes to employment; many industries are looking for employees who can comprehend, communicate and solve problems. The liberal arts curriculum challenges students to develop their critical thinking, oral and written communication and quantitative reasoning skills while also fostering an appreciation of different perspectives. These might sound like “soft” skills until you talk to employers who put them at the top of their list.

“A well-rounded liberal arts education is still a valuable commodity,” said instructor Lynn Yankowski, who teaches psychology at the college. “Professions love it, higher education institutions love it. And no matter what your occupation, you still have to communicate effectively, you have to deal with people, you have to make good decisions.”

In a 2011 survey of a thousand professionals across a range of industries commissioned by the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, 55 percent said they preferred students to get a “broad-based education that helps them choose their best career path.”

A new program, “Degree-in-Three” is under way that allows students to complete their associate degree in liberal arts in three years, taking evening and online/cable classes throughout the fall, spring and summer semesters. Information sessions will be held at the college April 30 and May 21.

For more information, contact Linda Fujitani at lkfujita@hawaii.edu or call 984-3226.

* Clyde Sakamoto is chancellor of the University of Hawaii Maui College. Ka’ana Mana’o, which means “sharing thoughts,” is scheduled to appear on the fourth Sunday of each month. It is prepared with assistance from UH-Maui College staff and is intended to provide the community of Maui County information about opportunities available through the college at its Kahului campus and education centers.