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Provost Interview with Shannon Beets: Liberal Arts at Sierra Nevada College


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What are the Liberal Arts?

Let’s start with the history of the Liberal Arts. Liberal Arts goes back to the Ancient Greeks and the essential skills they thought human beings should posses. The actual word “liberate” comes from Latin for “liber,” a free person, essentially an educated person who was capable of participating in social governance and society in a meaningful way.

The root of the Liberal Arts come from that idea, that through education we can become free, and be real participants in our society with a meaningful impact on the world around us.

Forward to the United States. Liberal Arts colleges have become places that are primarily about teaching, in contrast to big universities that are about research.

One of the problems we’re currently facing is the need for a redefinition of the Liberal Arts for the 20th century, since the term has been considered abstract, impractical and somehow not related to getting you a job, and getting you out in the world.

At [SNC], when we talk about the Liberal Arts, we want to add a few things to the nor- mal definition. We want to give you a broad, well-rounded interdisciplinary education. We want to make sure you can read, write, think well, problem solve and are visually literate. We want you to be able to understand what charts, diagrams and graphs mean and that you’re scientifically literate. On top of that, we want to ensure that you take what we teach in the classroom and apply it to the real world. We add professional preparedness to the Liberal Arts education, creating hands on learning, getting you out in the community and applying the concepts we teach you to real world situations.

Entrepreneurship, a core theme here, we define really broadly. We define it as more than just starting a business. It’s creative thinking, creative problem solving, that’s meant to make a difference in the world. If you can have a creative idea and implement it to make real world changes, that’s what entrepreneurship is to us here at SNC.

How can SNC students use their Liberal Arts degrees to gain leverage in the outside world?

All of the research tells us that companies are increasingly in need of the skills associated with a Liberal Arts graduate. Rather than having someone graduate with deep knowledge of a single skill or subject, as big universities tend to do, they need people who are complex problem solvers, can work independently, can integrate ideas across disciplines and can function well in a team. [Companies] need all of those abstract higher order skills that the Liberal Arts teaches. [Companies] are increasingly asking for those skills in employer surveys. A university that teaches you very specific skills for your career might prepare you for your first job, but Liberal Arts prepares you for the first and the eight career changes that you’re likely to have in your lifetime. Some of the jobs you eventually have might not exist today, so we need to prepare you to think, adapt, be flexible, and to take criticism- those are the skills that will get you through in the world. Knowing one thing doesn’t work, the world changes far too rapidly.

How many SNC students go to graduate school versus going straight to the work force?

It’s right around the national average, a little over 30 percent of our graduates continue on to graduate school and beyond.

What are the positives and negatives of proclaiming ourselves as a Liberal Arts college?

The negatives of proclaiming ourselves to be a Liberal Arts college are that many people see the Liberal Arts as being frivolous, impractical and not having real world applications. [Liberal Arts] are also often associated with being a very expensive education, but SNC has a lot of scholarships available to make it more affordable for people.

The advantages of calling ourselves a Liberal Arts college are that we get to claim the history of the Liberal Arts all the way back to the Greeks, the focus is on how education prepares you to be an active and responsible citizen.

There’s also a tremendous tradition of the Liberal Arts being the apex of education in the United States. It’s the most engaging and impactful kind of education you can get. We want to be part of that. We care about the fact that we’re interdisciplinary and that we teach those kind of skills, and that’s what we want to claim.

Does the location of SNC help with the Liberal Arts?

Absolutely. We get you out into the environment to study it. It might not help so much with Liberal Arts themselves, but it helps with recruiting. Who wouldn’t want to study here? It’s absolutely gorgeous.

What does SNC contribute to the world of Liberal Arts?

We contribute innovation. Liberal Arts tends to be about tradition, but what we’re out there saying is we care about the tradition, it’s what made us who we are today, but we have to progress. We must be about the flipped classroom, active, hands on learning that will increase what the students get out of their time here. We are sort of the scrappy underdogs that are saying, “Yes, we believe in tradition, too, but we want to change what is happening in education today. We want to do something new.”

Do Liberal Arts have a viable future?

Yes. Liberal Arts have a very viable future. In order for that future to come to fruition, we need to focus on redefining the Liberal Arts. We need to explain to people how it’s relevant, what it can do for them, and how it will produce the kinds of people that we need to really make a difference in the world. If we can do that, the future is out there.

By Brice Corcoran

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Provost Interview with Shannon Beets: Liberal Arts at Sierra Nevada College