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Feature

Graphic collage of knowledge symbols, such as Pi.

A liberating experience

why the liberal arts matter

by Liz Morrison

From M, winter 2003

In Michelangelo's famous sculpture, Captives, the figures--half-in, half-out of the marble--struggle to break free of their stone prisons. They seem to force themselves out of the rough blocks, pressing from within, driven to escape the pillars that lock them in darkness. The statues express the struggle of the spirit to transcend the body. Yet they are also metaphors for liberal arts education. Like the sculptor's chisel, liberal learning aims to free the human mind and release the spirit, liberating us from ignorance and prejudice and awakening us to knowledge and beauty. Liberal education lets us stand on the shoulders of the intellectual giants who came before us, and add to what they learned by grappling with the same profound questions: Who are we? Where did we come from? How should we live? America's liberal arts colleges offer students the chance to spend four years studying the best that humankind has thought and written and created. Students explore a wide range of subjects in the humanities, arts, sciences, and social sciences, guided by scholars who teach them how to seek answers to life's questions. "It's like a great smorgasbord of learning," says John Schwaller, vice chancellor and dean of academic affairs at the University of Minnesota, Morris (UMM). At Morris and other liberal arts colleges, students discover their talents and find vocations.

Power to shape lives

Liberal learning has enormous power to shape lives. Consider Jon Mukand, a physician and poet, who was educated at Morris. Mukand was born in India and grew up in Red Lake Falls, Minnesota. The son of a doctor and an English teacher, he entered UMM in 1976 with interests in science and literature; his teachers encouraged him to pursue both. Each field shed new light and meaning on the other, and this "cross-fertilization between disciplines" was, for Mukand, one of the most important benefits of his liberal education: It made him the kind of doctor he is, he says. Mukand was still at UMM when his father died. Looking for solace, he began writing poetry and discovered that words, like medicine, have the power to ease pain and to heal. Later, as a medical student and young physician, his study of literature helped him imagine "the patient's, the relative's, or the nurse's point of view," and he wrote his first book. During his medical training, Mukand also completed graduate studies in writing and English. He has published four books, including Articulations: The Body and Illness in Poetry (University of Iowa Press), an anthology used in many medical schools. His literary work has been praised as a source of insight into the experience of illness and its effects on the lives of patients, families, and caregivers. Now medical director of the Southern New England Rehabilitation Center in Providence, Rhode Island, Mukand says the mind-opening perspectives of liberal learning helped him become "more of an empathic scientist, more self-aware, more psychologically sophisticated.

'Absolutely practical'

Mukand's story shows the value of a broad education, even as some argue for more specialized job training. "Liberal learning is absolutely practical and useful," says Sam Schuman, chancellor of the Morris campus and a Shakespearean scholar. Liberal education teaches students to think critically and to be lifelong learners. In a fast-changing world, where many of us will switch careers more than once, "[critical thinking and lifelong learning are] the most useful of all vocational skills." Liberal arts education also cultivates qualities of citizenship and character, contributing to the public good. "Free minds," Schuman says, "make for responsible citizens and enlightened leadership in a complex, democratic society."

Morris: a national leader among public liberal arts colleges

This fall, UMM, a small, residential college of about 1,900 students in the west central part of the state, was again ranked among the top five public liberal arts colleges in U.S. News and World Report's 2003 rankings of America's Best Colleges. UMM earns high marks for value, campus diversity, student achievements and commitment to teaching. The college's small size creates an intimate learning community where everybody knows one another, and students get a lot of individual attention from professors. All this adds up to "a liberal arts education as good as any Ivy League school," says Mukand, who also has degrees from Stanford and Brown Universities. And tuition is a fraction of the price of a comparable private liberal arts college. Says Schuman: "UMM is a rare institution in its ability to combine the quality, rigor, and small size of a top private liberal arts college with the accessibility and service ethic of a public institution."

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