The value of a liberal arts education: Skeptic turned supporter

Judy Park

As prospective students, one of the first things we learn on our college search is that Washington and Lee is a liberal arts university. The university prides itself on offering a liberal arts education, affording students the opportunity to take courses that range in subject matter. Many students are able to double major due to that flexibility.

When I first visited the campus, I remember the tour guide and admissions officers emphasizing that one of the charms of having a liberal arts education was the small class sizes. It sounded very attractive, but I was skeptical — if having a liberal arts education was really worth it, why wasn’t it a more popular choice?

After completing my first semester, however, I’m delighted to say that I am a supporter of the liberal arts education.

My first memorable encounter was when I was registering for classes in the beginning of the year. I knew that every college had required classes, but when I looked into Washington and Lee’s requirements in detail, as an intended politics major, I was not pleased to hear that I would have to not only take two science courses, but also a lab science. After getting advice from my RA, I decided to take a geology lab, a choice that many non-science students make.

I went into the class with an open mind, and I’m glad I did. By the end of the semester I ended up falling in love with geology and was encouraged to take another course this semester. Never in a million years did I think that I would enjoy geology.

When I was back in high school, I asked my college friends what their classes were like, so I was familiar with the idea that you took classes related to your major. My friends from other colleges all had classes lined up for them according to their majors as early as their first year; meanwhile, my first semester consisted of geology, global politics, first-year Chinese and a writing seminar. At first I felt extremely disorganized, but I grew to appreciate the diversity of classes over the course of the semester as my previously mentioned friends began to burn out.

I think that’s the beauty of liberal arts. By holding the students responsible for a wide general knowledge, it gives students the opportunity to explore courses that they would not take initially. The diversity of classes kept me engaged with the information, one of the strongest advantages of a liberal arts education. I wasn’t a believer in trying new things until I experienced it myself.

This semester I’m taking a seminar on the material culture of protest, a product of two professors who teach different subjects. The school funded an overnight trip to Washington, D.C., where the class of 11 explored the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian National Museum of American History — an opportunity only feasible for a small class.

I realize that liberal arts at Washington and Lee doesn’t come without concerns. Over the past couple of years, the school has been admitting more and more students — directly resulting in increasing class sizes. Even now, although it is unusual, I am in a class that has 51 students.

The larger student body not only affects class sizes, but also the on-campus housing. The third-year housing won’t be able to hold all of the current sophomore students next year, which means that more third years will be living in Woods Creek.

We’ll see what Washington and Lee does to tackle this.