On the Value of a Liberal Arts Education

Homecoming was this past weekend, and with the exception of a regrettable loss on the gridiron, it was a fabulous weekend.  We celebrated reunions for classes ending in 1s and 6s – everyone from the Class of 1961 to the Class of 2006.  Having a couple thousand alumni on campus reminded me how much this place means to them.  They come back to see the beauty of the campus, to reconnect to friends and classmates, to visit former professors, and to remember what they learned here.  Whether it was 5 years ago or 50, they come back in droves.

What do they remember about their education?  What do they value?  In education and psychology, there is the theory of primacy and recency.  Wikianswers defines this effect as:

Primacy and recency are terms used in psychology to describe the effect of order of presentation on memory. The primacy effect results in information presented earlier being better remembered than information presented later on. The recency effect results in better recall of the most recent information presented. Together, these two effects result in the earliest and latest information in a given presentation being recalled best, with information in the middle being least remembered

And on the morning after Homecoming weekend, I am looking to a recent graduate for inspiration about what a Wake Forest education means.  We have a terrific young alumnus, Marcus Keely (’10), who worked at Wake Forest last year as a Fellow, and is now managing the START (student art) gallery in Reynolda Village.  Marcus wrote an exceptionally thoughtful piece about the value of a liberal arts education for the most recent WF Magazine (full article here).  In it, he talked about the frightening job market and the insecurity some liberal arts students feel in defending their choice of major:

“One of my close friends, a member of my graduating class, echoed this sentiment. A history major, she, like myself, had mastered the art of researching and writing a thorough paper on an obscure subject, but now, facing an unpredictable job market, felt wholly unemployable. ‘What can you do with a liberal arts degree?’ It seemed like every direction she turned there stood the question, an obstruction blocking her path.

While it is easy to harbor such an attitude in an economy that appears to reward hyper-specialization and college majors like engineering and microbiology, my five years as a member of the Wake Forest community (four as an undergraduate student and one as a staff member) compel me to think otherwise; that receiving a liberal arts degree is not a roadblock, but instead a crossroads.”

In this day and age, it would be tempting to think a liberal arts degree is not a safe path.  But Marcus gets it right:  “With the right preparation and perspective what at first appears to be a roadblock often is actually a crossroads; a place full of opportunity where, when an unbridled curiosity is met with limitless possibilities, one has the ability to choose, to mature and, with a measure of hope, to succeed.”

President Hatch said in a speech not long after he came to Wake Forest that (and I am paraphrasing here) “you don’t bet on strategies – you bet on people.”  We help train young minds to be nimble, quick, thoughtful, and principled.  Employers tell us that our students have exceptional critical thinking skills and a strong work ethic.  It doesn’t matter the major – our graduates excel.

I have always believed that you can take a recent graduate/new hire at a business and teach him or her how to be a banker [or insert any profession here], but if that person doesn’t already know how to think and communicate well, you can’t teach that.   In that way, I think we are betting on our people – the students – knowing they can learn the strategies specific to a profession as needed.

I don’t know if Marcus came to realize all he did based on the primacy of his lessons at Wake Forest, or their recency.  But he makes me proud.

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