Oberlin Blogs

Is a Liberal Arts Education Relevant?

April 7, 2015

Brendan Nuse ’17 and Frances Casey ’17


When you go to a liberal arts school, people tend to assume that your classes are completely irrelevant to life. However, I have found that a lot of my classes, even the ones that seem the most "useless," have changed the way I look at the world. For example, last semester, I took Urban Political Ecology. It's hard to tell what exactly that is by the title, and it's still hard to tell what exactly it is after taking the whole class (I tried to explain the course to my grandmother over winter term and I ended up having to read excerpts of my midterm in order to articulate my thoughts). Although I can't really explain what it is when people ask me, I would say that Urban Political Ecology changed my view of the world more than any other class I've ever taken.

So what about my classes this semester? Are they interesting? Are they cool? Are they relevant? Are they life changing? Let's find out.

BIOL103 Environmental Biology

Although most Environmental Studies students are not focused on the natural sciences (though some do double major in Environmental Studies and Geology, Chemistry, or Biology), we Environmental Studies majors are required to take certain science courses, biology being one of them.

A lot of us like to complain about having to take these classes, as we would prefer to rant about how Native American literature conveys neoliberalism's degradation of the Earth rather than learn about how meiosis impacts biodiversity, but, as much as I hate to admit it, these courses are pretty important to our overall understanding of environmental issues. In order to understand how to protect the environment, you need to understand the scientific basis behind environmental problems. So, in that sense, a class like Environmental Biology is pretty important to most people interested in environmentalism.

Another thing about science classes and Environmental Studies is that it helps me stay in touch with the goals I had for college when I was in high school. I've changed a lot since high school, but I'm still as interested in Environmental Studies as I was then. In high school, the Environmental Studies major particularly appealed to me because, although my primary interests and skills were in the humanities/social sciences, I felt that I could not completely give up natural science in college. I thought that the Environmental Studies major struck a nice balance between humanities/social sciences and natural sciences. Now, whenever I'm crying internally over the fact that I have to learn the stages of the plant life cycle, I remind myself that this is something I wanted to do when I was thinking about potential future majors. I'd like to say that then I have some great revelation about how my life has panned out in exactly the way I wanted it to, but actually I probably just curse my past self and keep trying and failing to remember what the difference between a sporophyte and a gametophyte is.

CHIN302 Advanced Chinese II

Chinese isn't relevant to my life. Chinese IS my life. In fact, my friend Hannah recently observed that taking Chinese "is basically a lifestyle." Which is, honestly, pretty true. I spend most of my time studying Chinese, thinking about studying Chinese, planning to study Chinese, or wishing I were studying Chinese.

However, that's not the only way that Chinese is relevant to my life! While I like to think that Chinese is relevant to everyone's life, as Mandarin is the language with the greatest number of native speakers worldwide, Chinese is particularly relevant to my life in the next few months, since I will be studying abroad in China next semester! All of my classes will be in Chinese, which basically means that I will be taking four Chinese classes (a dream come true). More significantly, I'll have a chance to apply my Chinese language skills in everyday life. The program that I am going on (which I'm sure I will blog about more later, particularly when I am actually in China) has a language pledge, which means that you are not allowed to speak English (or any language other than Chinese) while in China. I'm excited because I know that this will help me improve my Chinese skills, but looking at it from another angle, it also means that the Chinese I am learning now will be more relevant to my life during that time than anything else I could possibly be learning. Hooray for the Chinese life!

Additionally, although I don't exactly know what I'm going to do with my life after college, I'm pretty sure that it will involve Chinese in some way. I'm in too deep to give up Chinese now.

EAST215 Literary and Visual Cultures of Protest in Japan

I feel like every semester I have one class that has a long and difficult to explain title (like Urban Political Ecology last semester). Sometimes they are good, and sometimes they are not. This one is amazing. Despite having a very specific title that makes it seem like it would not have any bearing on everyday life, this class has touched on some very relevant social issues. Amidst reading about socialist feminist rebels in Edo period Japan (awesome), attending lectures about intertextuality in Japanese protest songs (really cool), and reading manga about the bombing of Hiroshima (horrifying), we've also managed to talk more broadly about the impact of art and literature on protest and social movements around the world, including in the United States today. Considering the volume of protest surrounding the events in Ferguson in the past few months, this has been super relevant to current social issues in the United States. It also reminds me of one of my favorite things about Oberlin-- the fact that not just students, but also professors are willing to discuss social injustice within a classroom setting, even if the course isn't explicitly related to said injustice. I think that these conversations are extremely useful in order to hear people with different backgrounds' opinions on the topic, as well as to understand the issue from a theoretical academic perspective as well as the perspective of someone who lives in a society in which these events occur.

This class is also really relevant to my life because it integrates so many different topics that I'm interested in. For example, earlier this semester I wrote an essay about how an essay written by a socialist feminist activist in Japan used nature metaphors to convey the oppression of women under the capitalism system. I guess that may give some credence to people who believe that a liberal arts education is "useless," but it was an awesome experience for me, as I got to integrate my two fields of study (East Asian Studies and Environmental Studies) with other social justice issues that I'm interested in. In reality, what is more relevant to my life outside Oberlin and my intellectual development than that?

ECON/ENVS414 Seminar: Environment and Sustainable Development

I'm going to be honest: the main reason that I took this class was because it is with the professor I had for Environmental Economics last semester, and I wanted to take as many classes with him as I could. Although I think sustainable development is an important aspect of environmentalism and it's technically a part of my pathway for the Environmental Studies major, it isn't necessarily my primary interest within Environmental Studies (whoops). Despite all that, this class has turned out to be quite relevant to my life in a variety of ways.

First of all, being a seminar, this class is based largely around a final seminar paper-- it's 15-20 pages long and 40% of our grade. Although I'm still a little terrified of facing that behemoth, I really like this format. Since the research is primarily self-guided, I was able to pick pretty much any topic I wanted. In my case, since I am really interested in the impacts of animal agriculture on the environment, I'm doing a project that tests the impact of meat consumption in different countries on their performance on various sustainability indicators. I am always excited when I have an opportunity to take course material and apply it to issues I am passionate about, especially because it makes it so that I realize how almost any course can be relevant to life outside school if you look at it from the right perspective.

Besides the course content itself, this class has had a large impact on my life in other ways. Since this is a seminar that is technically designed for senior Economics majors, and I am neither a senior nor an Economics major, I have had to learn how to adapt to this new environment (no pun intended). While I've learned a lot about econometrics and various other things from my peers, I've also realized the other skills that my Environmental Studies major has helped me develop. For example, I've learned to think critically about different forms of environmentalism. Before I came to Oberlin, I didn't really realize that there were different forms of environmentalism at all, since I had only really been exposed to the mainstream "if everyone turns off the lights when they leave a room, everything will be fine!" type of environmentalism. Now that I have some more experience, I've learned how natural scientists, radical social scientists like political ecologists, animal rights activists, and, of course, economists see the environment. Although this mass of viewpoints makes it so that I often don't know what exactly I myself believe, it has also made it so that I can critically evaluate different environmental viewpoints. Therefore, when my classmates talk about economic solutions to certain environmental problems, I am able to understand the chemical problems behind them, or the environmental justice implications that they may have. This dampens the sting of losing all of the arguments in class discussion because I know much less about economics than my classmates do.

I think that learning to think in different ways is a particularly relevant part of my education. On the first day of my Environment and Society class (my 2nd class of college ever!), we watched a video that talked about how "learning to think" is the hallmark of a liberal arts education. At the time, I thought that was kind of silly, and was pretty skeptical about whether or not the ability to think was going to get me a job. I'm still pretty skeptical about whether or not it will get me a job, but now that I've "learned to think" a little, I've realized how valuable it is to be able to approach the same issue from different perspectives, especially when the issues are big as the ones involved when studying the environment.

Overall, I think that my courses this semester are particularly relevant to my life. In fact, I was kind of astonished one day when I realized that we were discussing the same themes in my Japan class that we were in my Animorphs ExCo-- looks like you can find applicability to life everywhere.


Here at Oberlin, a student's class schedule can be all over the place; classes can be vastly different based on their content, themes, and rigor. Believe it or not, I like this way of learning. It certainly keeps me from ever being bored. When my friends who go to non-liberal arts schools ask me about my classes, my reply is sometimes met with a confused look and a "What did you say your major was again?" My classes might not seem like subjects that will directly affect my career path (whatever that is), but I definitely see the ways in which what I'm learning will be useful for me in the future. Let's take a look at what I'm learning about this semester:

CAST 100: Intro to Comparative American Studies

This is one of those classes everyone told me I should take before leaving Oberlin. I couldn't just ignore that advice, could I? The Comparative American Studies (CAST) department here at Oberlin is very interdisciplinary, and this class in particular covers a lot of different topics within the realm of "American Studies." Back in the day, American Studies was all about studying the "American mind" (I seriously doubt that actually exists) and how "American culture" was superior to other ways of life. Thankfully, our department isn't really about that life, and my class has focused on deconstructing these theories and the different social issues that shape life in the United States.

So far, we have talked learned about a range of issues, including the notion of "empire" and what that means in an American context, incarceration, immigration, and cultural appropriation. I've appreciated the opportunity to get an overview of some of these topics that are so relevant in our world today. The only downside is that because this class is only a semester long, we can't delve too deeply into any one topic. Nonetheless, this class has definitely provided me with a good jumping off point for educating myself further about social issues that play out around me every day. As an Oberlin student and human being, it's super important to be informed, and this class contributes to that awareness.

Another thing I like about CAST is the fact that not all of our readings are written by white men. That's definitely a problem I've encountered throughout my experience in academia, and it's important to me to read sources written by people who come from a variety of identities.

HIST 217: First Wave American Feminisms

Being a feminist and a History major, when I saw that this class was being offered, I knew I had to take it. Plus, it's taught by the professor who taught my First-Year Seminar, whom I really like, so it's a winner all around. Going into this class, I didn't really know anything about first wave feminism outside of the little box devoted to the suffrage movement in every textbook I ever had in high school. I've since learned that various first wave feminisms (the plural is important here--early feminists had a range of different goals and priorities for their movement) are quite fascinating to study, and are worthy of much more than a little box. Having knowledge about the early days of the feminist activism in the United States is not only important for historical context, but also for deconstructing a lot of the things that were really messed up about first wave feminism--things like racism, classism, and appropriation that feminists like me still need to work on today.

One awesome thing about this class is that it involves working in the college archives. On the fourth floor of Mudd Library, the college has countless amounts of archived documents, objects, and data that relate to Oberlin College or the town. For my class, we did a group project that involved transcribing, annotating, and analyzing documents from the archives. Our projects will be published online. My group transcribed a diary written by Emilie Palmer, a student at Oberlin during the civil war. It was fascinating to read her accounts of major events of the war, alongside her descriptions of student life and gossip. What I found most valuable about the project was that it made me feel like an actual historian; lately, I've been feeling a little disenchanted with the fact that my history major entails a lot of reading and thinking, but not a lot of doing. I felt very satisfied with our final product, and it felt good to bend my brain and examine history from a different angle. I'm also about to do a critical analysis of a book about sex education in the nineteenth century, which basically combines all of my interests, and I'm too excited.

HIST 271: Youth in Africa

This class, taught by a fabulous professor whom I had for Modern African History last semester, discusses youth social movements across Africa. This class has allowed me to further explore the interest I developed in African history last semester. I enjoy coming to class on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons and listening to my incredibly smart and thoughtful classmates talk through these issues. The class is pretty small, and we're awkwardly dwarfed by the huge lecture hall we sit in. I like having such a small class, because it makes it possible to hear from everybody every day, and I don't feel as intimidated as I would speaking in front of a larger group. The professor has included a lot of really complicated theoretical reading in the syllabus that she read as a graduate student, so sometimes I get to class feeling confused, but our professor is really patient with us, and I benefit a lot from our class discussion as we work through dense topics.

Because of the broad subject matter, we can't possibly cover all of the elements that affect the experiences of youth in all 54 African countries. This can be a little overwhelming, but we have the opportunity to write a paper and put together a presentation on a more specific topic of our choice at the end of the semester. Though the lives of African youth may seem far away and insignificant to some Americans, I'm convinced that that the struggles that African youth face are reflected in similar forms of resistance around the world, and can inform my own activism and social critique. I also believe that it's important for me, as a member of the Western world, to understand that my country has been perpetuating forms of oppression and exploitation that lead to many of the problems African youth face. (And, as a citizen of and a consumer in the U.S., I am also a participant in this oppression.)

RELG 249: Medical Ethics

I chose to take this class because of my interest in public health and reproductive justice. I had never taken an ethics class before, but I decided to see what was up. Well, I kind of wish I took an ethics class earlier and had a better understanding of ethical theory before taking this class. At times, I feel a little lost. There are some hardcore ethics enthusiasts (including my lovely roommate) in the class, and their seemingly endless knowledge can be a little intimidating at times. The good thing is that this class is discussion-based, and I'm usually able to clear up any questions I have pretty quickly.

So far, we've talked about all sorts of things, ranging from more abstract ideas about the nature of health and how medical concepts can be culturally bound to gritty ethical case studies relating to abortion, organ donation, and physician-assisted suicide. Since this class is in the Religion department, a lot of our discussions have incorporated religious concepts, which is pretty neat. This class will definitely influence how I confront ethical questions in my life, especially as I continue to develop my understanding of reproductive justice.

So, for anyone who isn't a liberal arts student, my classes might seem a little "out there," but I know that I'm getting the education that I want and need! I see value in being educated in numerous disciplines, and I know that I'm absorbing knowledge I will carry with me into whatever career field I enter in the future.

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