The Case for Liberal Arts: The Civic Mind

The Case for Liberal Arts: The Civic Mind

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

“There would be no America if Thomas Jefferson cared more about beans and viticulture than the truth that all men are created equal...”

So begins a recent article in “Inside Higher Ed” in which the authors argue that an education in the arts and humanities is nothing less than patriotic—the only path to safeguard American democracy. A country built on ideas, dialogue, values, and aspirations, they assert, needs a citizenry educated in the same in order to survive. To do otherwise is to invite narrow-mindedness, friction, and deadlock into our governance, and that, they suggest, is the death of democracy. It’s a strong assertion, but one that has a long history—the ancient Greeks believed much the same.

In the rush to land jobs and support families, it might be easy to forget that a liberal arts education is intended to have value beyond the economic. Indeed, it is also meant to produce engaged citizens. 

Dawn Zimmer

Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer '90 meets with city staff.


Examples abound of UNH liberal arts graduates, at all stages of their careers, who embody the civic-minded ideal. Mayor of Hoboken, Dawn Zimmer ’90, is one such example. A history major turned public relations executive, Zimmer moved to New Jersey with her husband to be a stay-at-home mom to her two young sons. As the children grew, so did Zimmer’s concern for the needs of her neighbors, her community, and eventually the entire city. She served on the city council, promoting park space and balanced redevelopment, but eventually ran for mayor, winning a special election in 2009 and a re-election in 2013. According to a UNH Magazine article, Zimmer moved into public service because, she said, if she wanted the ideal hometown, she realized she’d have to help build it. Catapulted to the national stage during 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, Zimmer deftly handled both the immediate flooding and the long-term rebuilding efforts, proposing innovative solutions to protect Hoboken and other coastal cities from future catastrophe. Today, Hoboken has rebounded and Zimmer has won respect and admiration for her leadership.

How did a history major end up a celebrated civic leader? Through her ability to imagine a different way of life for her community, her will to effect change, and her skills to turn ideas into realities.

“As it turns out," she told UNH Magazine, "communication is one of the most important parts of this job. I've done pretty well because I know how to communicate."


The urge and ability to communicate—to engage with people—may be key to the civic mind. Alum Ben Powers ’04, now settled in Middlebury, VT, cites his desire and ability to communicate as the most important skill he learned during his college education as a psychology and studio art double major, and one he connects directly to his life choices. Leaving a job in investment sales, Powers traveled the world as a professional sailboat racer. When not on his boat, he was fascinated by the different cultures he encountered and inspired to meet and learn from other peoples. Upon his return to the States a few years later, he decided he wanted a career that helped people’s personal lives—not just their pocketbooks. Now a career coach for other young people, he’s also started a locally sourced organic frozen food business with his mother called Heart to Hearth. Powers hasn't served in any public office, but his civic ideals find expression through his choice of people-oriented work.

“Concern for people is what started the product and our company,” says Powers. “Great communication skills are what have allowed us to grow so successfully. Both of which I attribute to a great foundation as a psychology major at UNH.”


These alumnae and others exhibit what a liberal arts education at its best does well—develop in students the ability to think beyond themselves.

The education starts early in college with choice, according to Associate Dean John T. Kirkpatrick. Unlike some professionally oriented majors, liberal arts majors are faced with curricular decisions from day one. What do I want to learn about? What is important to me? How will that subject fit with my broader goals? Students then read literature, study history, take courses in foreign culture, and learn about social sciences and the arts. They analyze, critique, write, and talk. Kirkpatrick believes the experience produces introspection, yes, but also extrospection.

“By the time our students graduate from college, they have thought about choices, they have thought about the relationship of themselves to others, and they are more likely to be other-directed,” says Kirkpatrick. “Students are forced to think about other people, other cultures, and avoid knee-jerk or emotional reactions to difference. Students learn that everything is complicated. Everything.”


When those students leave UNH and settle into communities, they will at some point be called on to serve—perhaps as a school board member, a little league coach, or a play director. Like Army Lieutenant General Mary A. Legere '82, they may serve through distinguished combat and high profile leadership roles. Or like Judge Jimmie Moore ’72, they may supplement career service with cultural, civic, and educational board work and initiatives.

Younger alums in the early stages of their careers also find ways to engage in their communities. Vanessa Williams ’08, a Spanish and communication double major, volunteers as a mentor and tutor for and for her local Boys & Girls Club. But she also defines her paid work as civic engagement. An assistant director of admissions at Bay State College in Boston, she sees her role as helping people find their way and develop as citizens.

Recognizing a public need and taking the initiative to do something about it is not the path that all educated people take. And liberal arts graduates certainly do not have the corner on service. What they do have is solid practice in considering other people’s points of views and examining their own preconceptions. They tend to know how to communicate and address the complexities of issues, big and small. Many bring an active agency to their lives.


To truly advance our democracy, our citizens may need one more skill: humility—to accept that we may not always be right. The civic ideal is not only about service but also about civility. We treat others with respect when we accept our own fallibility. As New Hampshire native and retired Supreme Court Justice David Souter reminded us in a speech to the Academy of Arts and Sciences last year: consider that at any moment we may be mistaken; have the humility to be unsure. The liberal arts promote that kind of tolerance, says Souter—that degree of healthy self-doubt that is critical to the success of our republic.

By Susan Dumais, The College Letter