It has been a rough summer. Violence in the Middle East has reminded us of how much is unresolved in that part of the world. Conflict between Russia and Ukraine brought down an innocent commercial airliner and raised the dark prospect of war in Europe. And the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri – and the resulting confrontations between demonstrators and police wielding military-grade weapons and armor – have sharply and painfully illuminated the profound imperfections of our own society.
As a member of the University community starting a new academic year against this turbulent background of world events, I am struck by how privileged we are to work together with colleagues to deepen our understanding of the natural world and of human culture, and to share that understanding with others. It is also a special treat to start the school year in Connecticut, where we are surrounded on all sides by spectacular natural beauty.
At the same time, I do not see our academic life as isolated from the challenges that our society faces, whether internationally, nationally, or in our own neighborhood. Quite to the contrary, our joint academic project provides the insight that we need to oppose the hatred and violence that we constantly confront in the world around us.
I am not claiming that we in academia have the answers to every problem, and that if you take our new course on conflict resolution then you can bring peace to the Middle East.
What I do believe is that a broad education – a “liberal” education – is needed to start to understand the full complexity of the historical, social, and religious context of the Middle East or of the Ukraine conflict. Closer to home, a liberal education offers an individual the opportunity to understand the significance of the events Ferguson, Missouri for our local community.
It is fashionable these days to question the value and relevance of higher education and to argue that our mission is primarily to equip students with “marketable skills.” As the parent of two college graduates, I am fully on board with the idea that kids need to leave college and be employable.
But the problems of Ferguson, Gaza, Iraq, and the Ukraine are life-and-death problems, with implications for the future of our country and our children and grandchildren. They are so complicated that one can’t even understand the nature of the problems through the application of particular “skills.” You need the ability to integrate a wide range of information, and you need the kind of insight into the lives of other people that comes from the study of literature, art, and culture.
That is why we must continue to expect that all students, whatever their field of study, also get the broad, foundational, “liberal” education that they will need to help make this a better world in the future.
There are so many good things happening at UConn – new programs, new buildings, new faculty, and new students – that there is no doubt of the importance that the people of Connecticut attach to higher education.
As we kick off the 2014-2015 school year, let’s recognize the joys of life at UConn and in Connecticut, let’s resolve to continue working to prepare our students for the complicated and difficult world in which we live, and let’s hope for better times to come.
Read more posts by Jeremy Teitelbaum, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, on his blog.