What is a liberal arts education? In answering this question, liberal arts colleges almost always talk about the traditional benefits first: a broad-based education that provides students with a grounding in the arts, humanities, physical and life sciences, and social sciences—regardless of major—that hones important skills needed for success. But when we do this, we leave out a major component of liberal arts learning—and that is a problem.
Exposure to a wide array of varying personal experiences and perspectives is one of the most important aspects of a well-rounded education, particularly a residential experience. Regardless of how many classes you may take in subjects across the curriculum, if you sit in a room where everyone’s experience is similar to your own, then learning is stifled. Diversity and inclusion are essential components of the liberal arts because they help provide understanding.
Personal experiences have shaped each of our students and faculty. How those experiences then broaden the scope of learning in the classroom by informing wide-ranging discussions is critical. Difference takes many forms: socioeconomic status, first-generation students, race, religion, gender identity and internationalism, to name a few. But simply bringing people of various backgrounds together is not the goal—it’s their inclusion in the life of the College. By living and learning together as a diverse community, we honor the core of our mission, providing a truly broad experience that provides students with insight and perspectives that give greater depth and meaning to their studies.
There is a lot of debate in the country at this moment, especially with regard to inclusion and diversity on campuses. Speakers are being shouted down and professors and students are coming into conflict. Instead of discussion or debate, we see increasing intolerance toward opposing views. Laws that hinder gender equality are felt keenly on campuses and proposed travel bans inhibit the access of some international students and faculty members to American colleges, while making others feel unwelcome.
These all have a potentially profound effect on the liberal arts experience. That is why it is important to be clear about the values that guide Wilson College. The Honor Principle—which is signed by every student, faculty and staff member—asks each of us to: demonstrate personal integrity; demonstrate concern for others, their feelings and their needs; respect diversity in people, ideas and opinions; and respect the dignity of others. It asks that we respect one another because of our difference, not in spite of it.
As Wilson grows in size, we will need to remain vigilant that our practices continue to encourage inclusiveness, and that we find new ways to welcome diverse experiences to our campus. We remain committed to these ideals and to providing a supportive, inclusive community to all of our students, faculty, staff and alumnae/i. We welcome people of different cultures, countries and races. We respect varying views of faith and religious practice. We strive to provide access to those who may struggle financially. We fully support the LGBTQ community. We recognize the rights of transgender students to live their lives in accordance with the identity they have defined. We support those with disabilities. We value differing political and social views.
The Honor Principle at Wilson began more than 100 years ago and, like the traditional characteristics of liberal arts, came about at time when difference and inclusion was not valued in higher education or in the country. Thankfully, a lot has changed since then, and much has been gained.
So, when we ask the question, “What is a liberal arts education?,” perhaps we should take a cue from a Chinese proverb that states, “Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.” A liberal arts education is one that brings people from disparate backgrounds and diverse experiences together in a community to live and learn from one another. In doing so, we broaden the learning experience, help individuals understand new perspectives and prepare students for success in their personal and professional lives.