Liberal Arts Education: How well does it work across programs?

A look at liberal arts and the Hamline plan for interdisciplinary learning Columnist: Dean Young

Dean Young, Columnist

When I first enrolled at Hamline, I was concerned about my school choice. Not anything regarding the institution itself, but rather the structure of the undergraduate program connected to my areas of study. Hamline is a liberal arts college, and my areas of study,music and neuroscience, seemed conspicuously at the fringes of the liberal arts focus; I had to ask myself just how appropriate it would be to specialize in areas that the school (supposedly) didn’t. Should music be studied at the conservatory, and science at technology-focused institutions? Having a few years to reflect, I hope to inform any new students as to how the school accommodates academic areas that don’t seem particularly liberal-artsy

Hamline, as with many others across the nation, refers to itself as a liberal arts college; however, I have found that this nomenclature does not necessarily describe the strengths and sizes of the programs. It should be remembered that liberal arts, as understood today, is quite broad and includes subjects such as life science, music, political science and psychology. Furthermore, departmental associations with traditional liberal arts do not necessarily dominate Hamline’s settings. Hamline’s biology department, for example, is quite large80 students are signed up for the biology seminar this semesterand consequently hosts considerable student opportunities. Indeed, departments that might be thought to be central at a small, old liberal arts schoolsuch as religionhave been rehoused as their programs have shrunk (a topic for another column).

Beyond this, a key benefit to studying a topic at a liberal arts school is the ability to focus on areas outside of your primary area of study. When I first came to Hamline, it seemed as though everyone I met was a double major. Part of this, no doubt, is the liberal arts emphasis; however, I would venture to say the primary reason is the handy structure of the Hamline Plan.

The Hamline Plan has its naysayers, to be sure (particularly when class schedules are ruined through needing “one more letter” to graduate), but there is value in the system. Whereas alternative approaches to satisfying breadth of study requirements utilize a common core, Hamline essentially allows you to create your own core whichcriticallycan include courses from your major(s). Combined with the liberal arts focus of learning across departments, it becomes practically unavoidable to expand your academic focus beyond your area of specialty in a way perhaps not matched by institutions with a singular focus.

In fact, the ability to study multiple subjects was one of the driving reasons I chose Hamline: when I told an admission counselor at another Minnesota college of my desire to double major, he informed me with no hesitation that “you don’t want to do that here”; when I spoke to Meg Stehula at Hamline admissions, the reception was markedly different. Whereas the other school used a common core, theHamline Plan system allows the core to also double as degree requirements in a major. Rather than a major being electives around an unchanging core, the major itself is now partial satisfaction to breadth of study. The flexibility readily facilitates extra areas of study, be it minors, concentrations, or even a second major. This, I suggest, gets to the heart of the liberal arts focus.

Some argue that the letter plan system is flawed, as it may require us to take a class for no reason other than to satisfy a letter requirement (this is likely true for me in the upcoming semester). However, is this any different than a core curriculumexcept that with a core, we are not given a range of class options from which to choose?

Outside of the Hamline plan, the combination of Hamline’s small size and liberal arts focus creates the greatest challenge I have faced at Hamline: involvement opportunities. However, rather than a lack of such opportunities, the main challenge is abundance! It is hard to stay disconnected from outside areas, and for many students with diverse interests, this translates to ample opportunities. It is what allowed me, among other things, to participate on the mock trial team, serve as president of the chemistry club and write for the Oracle. Many of my peers can speak to similar ranges of opportunities and activities they have involved themselves with. Math majors are welcome to theater productions, English majors to choir and music majors to model UN. Certainly I would have missed out on my opportunities if I had gone to a school with a more narrow academic focus.

For these reasonsalong with several key others to be addressed in a future columnI have not regretted my decision to study at this small liberal arts college. Even for those of us who might not think of ourselves as quintessential liberal arts students, I think that Hamline is doing an appropriate job of providing a worthwhile learning experience, particularly in the realm of interdisciplinary learning. Much of learning is becoming increasingly intersectional, and the liberal arts model at a small school might just be the best way to explore that.