Denise Buell, Chair and Professor of Religion

“American higher education has to be mindful … that the vocational demands of an increasingly complicated civilization don’t press back into and cut away some essentials of the liberal arts program. … We have to mount the defenses to protect and preserve the range and variety and richness of the undergraduate years, to keep the liberal arts core, which has been its traditional strength, remaining at the heart of the enterprise.” –John E. Sawyer ’39

Sawyer’s words certainly ring true to me. Exposure to multiple ways of thinking and multiple interpretive tools with which to understand the world remains a hallmark of the liberal arts. Being stretched to engage a wide range of disciplinary and interdisciplinary perspectives enables liberal arts graduates to become more nuanced and effective in any profession they ultimately pursue.

Indeed, Sawyer argues for the kind of “elasticity” a liberal arts education produces. A liberal arts education trains students to think more flexibly about the complexity of—and in—the world rather than providing them with narrower technical expertise that’s likely to become obsolete or with single-disciplinary specialization that limits their capacity to respond to challenges or to see the larger picture. Learning how to approach a problem with a varied set of tools is a skill of great use in the practical world, where comprehension can rarely be achieved through a single approach.

This is true in my own multidisciplinary field of religion, which straddles the humanities and social sciences (and, increasingly, other scientific fields). A liberal arts education challenges students to encounter a range and variety of subject areas and approaches, thus helping them to “look widely,” as Sawyer puts it. Even more than this, at its best, the liberal arts equip students to negotiate and work successfully with competing perspectives.

Strikingly, Williams has strengthened its curriculum precisely in ways that sustain investigation of the questions Sawyer identifies as central for students in his day. These include questions about the relation of America to the world, about intra-American racism, immigration and economic disparity. The college should continue to articulate the core values of the liberal arts while also embodying curricular elasticity—asking students to encounter radically different time periods, languages, methods and techniques, as well as to identify and confront directly ongoing, present challenges. In this way we can ensure the relevance of the liberal arts.

Return to the full article: What Sawyer Said