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David Boocker

David Boocker

Midlands Voices: Goals of liberal arts college remain vastly important

by David Boocker

The writer is dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. This article originally ran on the editorial pages of the Omaha World-Herald on Sept. 16.

Since its establishment in 1909, the College of Arts and Sciences, a liberal arts college within a metropolitan university, has grown to be UNO's largest academic unit, enrolling more than 3,000 majors and providing general education and foundational courses needed by all students.

The college's three divisions — Humanities, Natural Sciences and Social Sciences — encompass 20 departments and programs that offer more than 30 degree programs.

Though distinguished by its disciplinary diversity, such subdivisions do not fragment our mission, which is framed by the goals articulated in the Strategic Plan of the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Those goals are: (1) to place students at the center of our academic enterprise, (2) to achieve academic excellence and (3) to actively engage our community.

To achieve these important goals, faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences are committed to teaching excellence (teaching about half of UNO's total credit hours), cutting-edge research and creative activity in all disciplines, and service in the UNO and Omaha communities.

For many Americans, unfortunately, education has become more focused on vocational training. A March 2 New York Times article in the Omaha World-Herald suggested that "liberal arts (is) a hard sell" in colleges today because the traditional liberal arts education doesn't "prepare students for a specific vocation."

But a liberal arts education is not defined by the immediacy of occupational goals. As one university president explains, "A liberal education is ultimately useful" because "it gives students the strong sense of self and habits of mind and action to become leaders."

Today, a liberal education is defined by a broad and generalized preparation for social and professional responsibilities, in addition to vocational training.

Therefore, the College of Arts and Sciences is united with other universities in our mission to help students gain essential knowledge and skills that will prepare them for the 21st century:

  • To attain knowledge of the physical and natural world and human cultures through the study of sciences and mathematics, social sciences and humanities.
  • To encounter people and places that are different from those of their home communities.
  • To understand how individuals and communities, both past and present, have confronted and dealt with challenges.
  • To write effective arguments and to read texts critically.
  • To solve ethical problems employing moral reasoning.
  • To comprehend environmental problems and to discover solutions.

Daniel Jenkins, UNO's first president, wrote in 1909 that the new school was designed "along lines of study required for Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science degrees" to prepare well-rounded and informed citizens.

The college has grown and expanded since 1909. Today, the College of Arts and Sciences is incredibly diverse, rightfully including programs and departments in black studies, women's studies, Latino/Latin-American studies and Native-American studies. These are alongside those in biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, English, foreign languages, history, philosophy, religion, geography, geology, sociology, anthropology, political science and psychology.

And we continue to move forward, with new programs in Israel/Jewish studies, Islamic studies and neuroscience.

But Dr. Jenkins' ideal — to prepare informed and well-rounded citizens — remains the essential function of higher education today.

Indeed, liberal arts education is so powerful that it is feared in such places as Iran, where there have been recent efforts to purge liberal arts courses from higher education institutions because Iran's ruling regime perceives them to be "incubators for the political unrest unleashed after the disputed presidential election in June" (New York Times, Sept. 2, 2009).

In fact, the word "liberal" comes from the Latin liber, meaning free. In the Middle Ages, a liberal education based on grammar, rhetoric and logic was privileged over training in the mechanical or useful arts, which stressed manual skills, because it freed a person from physical servitude.

Thus, courses in liberal arts disciplines are powerful: They "free" students from preconceptions, encourage them to confront differences of opinion and provide them with the tools to challenge prejudice, bias and authority. In short, they prepare students to be good citizens who are able to succeed in a diverse and complicated world with conflicting customs and interests.

Beginning on Wednesday, Sept. 23, the centennial for UNO's College of Arts and Sciences will be marked by a speaker series featuring alumni from each department and program in the college.

To find out more about this series and to learn more about UNO's College of Arts and Sciences, please visit our Web site at All events are free and open to the public.

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