April is a stressful month for high school seniors. Once admissions decisions are released, there are many factors they must take into account before choosing their college. The kind of education the school offers is typically at the top of the list of things to consider.

While big schools are dynamic and full of opportunities, smaller liberal arts colleges can have just as many opportunities, offering the students the freedom to explore their many interests. In selecting which institution to attend, this distinction is crucial. After all, college is a time when you are constantly evolving, and it is important to explore many academic disciplines and learn to think critically about them while you are there.

Reflecting on the diversity of experiences he’s had at Wesleyan, Henry Lombino ’18 discussed the importance of these liberal arts ideals.

“I really think that it is important to have a wide variety of knowledge,” Lombino said. “A liberal arts education allows you to experiment and try new things, so you are not completely set in stone from the beginning. College is a place where you really change a lot. I’ve changed a lot from the time I’ve been at Wesleyan. I enjoy being a part of a lot of things and seeing how they come together. Majors are designed so you don’t have to spend your whole life doing them if you don’t want to. A lot of people think I’m a theater or dance major, but I’m not. I just do a lot of those things. Interacting with all those different aspects and having access to all of those different resources in departments across the fields is invaluable.”

Tabitha Gillombardo ’16 echoed many of Lombino’s sentiments, applauding Wesleyan for its open curriculum and encouragement of academic risk-taking.

“One of the major benefits of a liberal arts education is that it teaches students that they are a capable in more than one discipline,” she said. “When people go to other kinds of colleges, they feel like they have to stick to one area of study and that has to be their niche. A liberal arts college challenges that because it empowers students to take academic risks, think in new ways, and realize that they are capable of more than just one type of job or career. When you’re at a school that streamlines you on one academic track, you end up getting these archetypal students. At Wesleyan, you can meet a student that plays a sport, does theater, and is a Biology and Dance double major.”

Wesleyan has an open curriculum that gives students the freedom to explore their various interests and even develop new ones. There are no required classes other than for your major, but there are the General Education Expectations, which require that students take at least three classes in each of the three major departments—Natural Sciences and Mathematics, Arts and Humanities, and Social Science—by the end of their senior year. These expectations are good because they do not force students to take specific classes, but they do ensure that they take classes outside of their typical interests and learn to think in different ways.

“I really like that at Wesleyan, you don’t have to take any specific class,” said Brooke Burns ’18. “It’s nice that we do have the Gen Eds though because without them, there would be humanities majors that only take humanities classes and science majors that only take science classes. It’s nice to ensure that crossover. With the open curriculum, you can still take classes that relate to your major but also make you think differently and more critically about your major itself.”

“My sister is at a UC school, and, during her freshman year, people had to take all of the same intro classes, regardless of their interests,” Dasha Dubinsky ’18 said. “That really boxes people in. I think the Gen Eds at Wesleyan are much better than forcing people to take specific classes.”

Even professors, such as Professor Elizabeth McAlister of the Religion department, are aware of how unique and special a liberal arts education really is.

“To me, the liberal arts is ultimately about critical thought, which is to be able to take anything and look at it outside of its own terms,” McAlister said.“For example, we can take a political speech and note the assumptions and logic of the politician, and we can avoid being swept away by any one element of it and look at it outside of its own terms. Ultimately, for me, the freedom to think independently and not be swept away by the thoughts of others is one of my most prized values, and it is one of the things that the liberal arts can offer anyone.”

McAlister received a liberal arts education herself; she holds a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology from Vassar College. That education has allowed her to teach interdisciplinary courses that appeal to a wide variety of students.

“I cannot imagine myself without my liberal arts education,” she said. “When I took Feminist Theory at Vassar, it shaped my understanding of myself as female-bodied in America. When I took Africana Studies, it shaped my understanding of my own whiteness. I remember it being profoundly destabilizing to realize the extent of misogyny in the world and being able to experience it with this newfound critical knowledge. Going through a good liberal arts education is not necessarily easy, and it can be profoundly unsettling. However, it is invaluable, and I think a Wesleyan-level liberal arts education should be offered to everyone. My own son is shopping for college right now, and I am even more convinced that a place like Wesleyan is a better place for an undergraduate than an Ivy League school or a big state school precisely because of its reach in the liberal arts.”

Thanks to Wesleyan’s open curriculum, students are able to take lots of different classes outside of their major. Those classes even end up being some of the best, most influential classes in some students’ college careers.

“I am currently in a Philosophy class called Women, Animals, Nature,” Burns said. “It’s an eco-feminist class that just gives you this way of approaching things intersectionally that I really enjoy. I love the class so much, that it made me decide to add a Philosophy major in addition to being a College of Social Studies and Russian Studies major.”

When you attend a liberal arts school and take advantage of all of the things it offers you, it will certainly prepare for you for the future just as well as a big research university would. Jobs are rarely focused on just one academic discipline, so having a well-rounded liberal arts education will really allow you to take on all sorts of jobs and do many different things in the future.

“I think it is really important to know something about a lot rather than a lot about something,” Gillombardo said. “I feel confident putting myself in new situations because that is what taking courses at this school is. I’ve learned how to do that confidently and thoughtfully. I’ve also learned how to draw connections between courses. Interdisciplinary academia is so related to real life experiences because you have to be able to synthesize a lot. I think that a liberal arts education fosters excited classrooms because people are choosing what they are studying. My classes make me excited about learning and encourage me to take risks and feel vulnerable, and that is really going to be beneficial in the future.”

  • Tony Perkis

    Why is it now a thing to exclude the “arts” from “liberal arts” when discussing liberal arts schools and liberal arts education? I’ve been seeing this a lot recently (particularly from Wes-related stuff), and I don’t get it. Doesn’t omitting the “arts” and shortening the terms to “liberal education” or “liberal school” change the meaning? Isn’t there a different? Or am I just losing my mind?