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George Watson discusses future of liberal arts education

College of Arts and Sciences Dean George Watson tells the Association of Retired Faculty that "creative and progressive work is at the core of the liberal arts."

When American novelist Mark Twain heard that his obituary had been published in a New York City newspaper he is reported to have quipped, “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” 

George Watson, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Delaware, believes the same could be said about the perception that a liberal arts education is soon to be a thing of the past in American higher education. 

Watson expressed his views on the subject during a talk given at a luncheon meeting of the University of Delaware Association of Retired Faculty held Tuesday, March 3, in Clayton Hall. 

There is an increased skepticism over the value of a college degree that pervades the higher education landscape, with parents, students and the public expressing interest in the return on their investment of tuition dollars, Watson said. 

“The value of a college degree is often measured in terms of a return on the investment, including the readiness of finding the first job and what the starting salary is,” Watson said. “While the readiness for liberal arts graduates for getting the first job is generally fine, there is a lot of discussion regarding the competitive starting salary of liberal arts graduates against that of graduates with more professionally oriented degrees.”

Concerns about the return on investment of tuition dollars are driven by the rising cost of a college education, increasing levels of student debt, unemployment challenges after graduation and an economy that is still weak while continuing to rebound, Watson said. 

Supporting the liberal arts education

Despite such concerns and press headlines that pose questions on the value of a liberal arts education, the news is not all grim, Watson noted. 

“One of the things we are trying to do is to move the discussion from the first job out of college, which, for most students only lasts eight months, and focusing on the long term, sustainable career that you can develop with a liberal arts degree,” Watson said. “Evidence shows that in a lot of enterprises, the liberal arts person is the CEO in charge of the organization, so your boss most likely will come from the liberal arts.” 

Proponents of the liberal arts education need to regularly explain the value proposition of the educational experiences and degrees offered, Watson said.

“This is not just in terms of getting a job, but also how graduates are able to think critically, communicate effectively and be productive members of society,” Watson said. “We in the College of Arts and Sciences lay claim to being the intellectual and cultural heart of the University. It’s in our strategic plan.” 


George Watson discusses the value and the future of a liberal arts education, speaking at the March meeting of the UD Association of Retired Faculty.

Watson noted the importance of providing encouragement and support for innovative interdisciplinary collaboration across campus, and integrating research scholarship, service and engagement with the public into the student curriculum.

“Creative and progressive work is at the core of the liberal arts, and a liberal education is one of the core values of our college,” Watson said. “It really does lay the groundwork for lifelong success.” 

As evidenced by its model in general education and majors, the College of Arts and Sciences employs a T-shaped approach, combining areas of in-depth study with specific areas of interest and exposure to educational experiences across a wide range of academic fields, Watson noted. 

“The higher order skills developed through the college experience help students get jobs and have a successful career,” Watson said. “What we are accomplishing with our students in four or five years really does depend less on what their major field is. We believe in that wholeheartedly in our college.” 

Exploring and understanding cultural, social, philosophical and historical issues can provide a framework for thinking about the future and the problems faced by society through creative thinking, Watson said. 

“As leaders, graduates will need to identify the important problems that need to be solved,” Watson said. “Identifying these problems is just as important as solving them.”

Watson added that a liberal arts education affords students the opportunity to develop skills necessary to synthesize, contextualize and communicate information and to work with increasingly diverse groups of people.

“I believe that the liberal arts have a way of bridging boundaries, bringing us together, illuminating the human condition and reminding us, in a world where we’re frequently faced with issues that divide us, that we are all connected through our humanity,” Watson said. “The arts are also a critically important avenue to helping us engage students and audiences alike.”

Signature programs in the college, Watson noted, include the undergraduate degree in art conservation, the three-year master of science degree in art conservation offered in collaboration between UD and Winterthur, and the doctoral program in preservation studies in collaboration with the Center for Material Culture Studies. 

Another example of engaging students in the humanities is the environmental humanities minor, based on the premise that the most basic environmental questions are humanistic, Watson said.

“The environmental sciences are important,” Watson said, “But we also wanted students to explore why we have environmental problems, what shapes our ideas about our place in nature and how has that relationship has changed over time.”

Watson also noted the college’s commitment to providing students with the opportunity to engage and experience the arts in local and global settings. 

“The arts continue to receive accolades, whether it’s the notable performances by our REP or accomplishments by our internationally renowned UD Chorale and, increasingly, other student ensembles traveling around the world,” Watson said. “Our programs exemplify the extraordinary power of the arts in connecting communities and cultures worldwide. I couldn’t imagine our college without the strong arts portfolio that it possesses.”

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Dean George Watson spoke about the value and the future of a liberal arts education in a talk to UD's Association of Retired Faculty.

Dean George Watson spoke about the value of the liberal arts in a talk to UD's Association of Retired Faculty, saying such an education "lays the groundwork for lifelong success."

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