A True Liberal Arts Education Is More Important Than Ever Before: The Fundamental Shift We Need

Connor Recck ’23

Opinion Editor

When I first matriculated into Trinity College back in 2019, I was under the impression I would be an English or political science major. I had always been fascinated with politics, especially given that the “Age of Trump” stood as a defining political moment during my teenage years. I had taken literature courses in high school that I always found interesting, so I thought, “why not pursue this further in college?” I quickly came to learn that as much as I enjoyed evaluating literature, it did not grab my interest in the same way it did in high school.

After meandering through different social science disciplines as a first-year student, I soon found my footing within the different niches of the academic world. During my third semester, I was enrolled in the introductory courses for the Public Policy and Economics Departments. By the end of that semester, I had declared a major in both disciplines. The world of public policy felt grounded in practicality. I enjoyed the few political science courses I took during my first year, but the emphasis on theory felt as if we were losing out on how to apply these practices in contemporary society. The Public Policy Department felt like the perfect niche, concerned with understanding the issues we are facing today and how different policy methods may enact real change. Declaring this major felt like an obvious progression in my academic journey.

My interest in economics was not drawn from any previous coursework. Sure, I recognized the basic intersection between politics and the economy, but I never felt motivated to pursue an academic understanding of economic theory. This changed after the Fall semester of my sophomore year: I was enrolled in ECON 101 and soon learned that my interest in politics would only further expand my interest in the economics discipline. After achieving success in 101 that semester, I quickly declared a second major in economics. I came to recognize the interdisciplinary advantage this focus of studies would provide me.

There is a natural progression within the Economics Department. Students must meet a certain academic standing in the three primary theoretical courses: Basic Economic Principles (ECON 101), Microeconomic Theory (ECON 301), and Macroeconomic Theory (ECON 302). With a sufficient understanding of the theoretical components of economics, students pursue courses that take a given environment to which these theories can be applied. Examples of such courses that I have taken include the Economics of Health & Health Care (ECON 217) along with Law and Economics (ECON 334).

I have enjoyed my academic journey with the Economics Department over the course of my Trinity experience. Still, I recognize many of the shortcomings within the major. These gaps need to be explored more closely. Throughout my academic journey, and especially in recent months as I work on my thesis, I have learned just how interconnected politics and the economy are. Political and economic institutions within our domestic and global societies interact daily. There is even an entire academic discipline committed to studying “political economy.”

In my macro theory course, we spent extensive time covering fiscal and monetary policy, but what we studied was rooted in the nature of the theory itself; these theoretical concepts were applied to contemporary economic policy only in broad terms. Luckily for me, I was able to scratch this academic itch in a class called Fiscal Policy in the 21st Century (ECON 223). The information I learned in this course was a major factor in my decision to pursue a thesis that emphasizes its focus on the role of economic policy during modern recessions.

Despite having this appetite satiated, I still felt like something was missing. It was not until this semester, my final semester at Trinity, that I felt like I was engaging in an economics course that strays from conventional learning. This class is an economic history class; specifically, it is the Economic History of the US South (ECON 356). This course appeared to offer something that engages with the study of economics in a unique environment.

On the first day, our professor informed the class that this was only the fourth time an economics course studying this material was being taught in the country. This course is grounded in both economics and history, exploring how different factors and institutions developed an economic structure that supported and bolstered a chattel slave economy in the American South.

I have never taken a course in my four years at Trinity that explored this type of material in this fashion. I could have never imagined taking a course like this in high school. Especially now, as the culture wars turn their eyes toward the material being taught within our public schools, it feels like an impossible task to expand what and how students are taught American history.

This being said, higher education should be responsive to introducing courses that provide students with a more robust understanding of how social, political, and economic institutions have interacted in the United States to uphold a system of racial hierarchy. Students should have the opportunity to broaden their knowledge of the historic and contemporary realities of discrimination. A population that is more educated on this material may be in a unique position to respond in their adulthood through efforts, and maybe then some true social progress can be achieved in the long term.

Academic leaders, especially those within social science and liberal arts programs, should be motivated to expand their course material into new territory. Colleges such as Trinity are in a perfect position to push for these kinds of expansions in course learning. Trinity labels itself as a place where “liberal arts meet the real world.” This kind of fundamental shift in how we teach is at the forefront of a liberal arts education. As a starting point, these institutions can take the lead in pioneering a new kind of learning in the United States.

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