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Liberal + Arts: The Silver Lining of an Interdisciplinary Education

Arts & Culture | May 6, 2013

I’ve never quite understood what “liberal arts” means. It is a grey area of skills that we need in order to thrive as liberated people, surely, but engineers seem to handle their independence just fine.

Maybe “liberal arts” instead implies a loose pursuit of the arts, a lenient interpretation of what it means to be a modern academic artist. But that’s doubtful. Right? Instead, let’s say the name implies an integrated, involved, and complete approach to education that inevitably leads to our Bachelors of Arts. In simple terms, it’s about combination. It’s an equation. Liberal plus arts equals schooling. Active plus citizenship. Spring plus Fling.

This world we live in now is not just one of compounds, though. Those days were in elementary school, when everything was, well, just that. Elementary. Primary. Steeped down to its essence. In those days, we found ourselves on playgrounds by the schoolhouse. We talked about superpowers and thought of ourselves as bookworms. We took two words we knew and put them together to give us a third one.

Now, our complex buzzwords conjugate themselves. Their meaning is composite, more complex. Instead of getting a by-product by pairing two words together, our educational equations give us new meanings, new context, new concepts. They are our interdisciplinarianism.

I’ve lived through four years of this interdisciplinary mind set. So often we hear that it pulls you from what you love, that it draws and quarters you into different majors and paths, and you just get so lost, stuck somewhere between Math of Social Choice and astronomy, unhappy, bereft of anything vocational. But those people are still the compound worrywarts of yesteryear. Have faith.

Distribution + Requirements

A core curriculum that encourages you to learn outside of your comfort zone is exhausting and can seem, at times, unfulfilling, given that you’re paying so much for your personalized education in the first place. Yet, distribution requirements set up an interdisciplinary lens that will allow you to analyze and understand what exactly you’re really interested in.

Before freshman year, I had pledged never to take another language class because I was so incompetent at Spanish. To this day, I can only remember the phrase “Que lástima,” and the one time I used it in Seville, it didn’t go over well. Yet, I somehow found myself plodding through 8 semesters of Arabic to fulfill my international relations major. I hated it because it was so difficult, so time-consuming. It violated my GPA. But what really matters is that I learned to love it, or at least parts of it.

Once I realized the change, I learned why my opinion morphed in the first place—I had become fascinated with the art inherent to the language, the culture and religion imbued within it, the ability to hear the stories of people with whom I would never otherwise be able to communicate. That’s what I fell in love with.

It is much easier to pick out what is important to you in fields you hate or are uncomfortable with as opposed to studies with which you’re overjoyed because you can isolate what makes you tick, provided you’re reflective and honest. Maybe you like challenges. Maybe you like people. You’ve got to like something, so do something you hate in order to figure it out.

Trail + Blazing

With the interdisciplinary model, it’s hard to have a “thing” because your focus is spread over so many different subjects. In fact, if your personal thesis statement—that little sentence that terrifyingly will sum up your existence and passions—is too clear in these supposedly formative years you’re probably ticking too close to home. The vast majority of Tufts students find themselves immersed in many disparate activities—some will cause them to travel, some will cause them to meet people. Some will make them more responsible or more cynical. More religious. Bolder. The hodgepodge of classes and activities and internships you find yourself in can only be a good thing—especially if they affect you, if they cause you to think. All of these things you’ve chosen to surround yourself with are engaging you in different ways. You’re coming into contact with more surface area with the hopes of triggering some synapse somewhere.

Soul + Search

The constant re-thinking and evaluating that comes with the interdisciplinary approach to education can cause some paranoia. It is so anxiety-provoking to realize that, despite your wide array of interests and areas of knowledge, being well-rounded when you’re suddenly face-to-face with the job plus hunt doesn’t help you that much.

At first, the interdisciplinarian will have trouble selling himself. He has many passions but fails to find the common thread, the overarching narrative. He likens himself to a Frankenstein’s monster of interests, a corpse bride that’s less morose. He thinks something is wrong. And that’s what’s right.

It is terrifying trying to figure out your story. But the more time you spend figuring out how you would be happy—especially when your livelihood is thrown into the mix—the easier it becomes. You start off with a marble mess of yourself. And, as you talk to more potential employers, you chisel away at the extraneous details—that one mission trip, the discussions you liked about that one philosophy class—and, like a true liberal artist, you finally start to realize you’ve spent the last four years making a masterpiece.

Silver + Lining

Interdisciplinarianism teaches us to think in broad strokes—in themes—which is ultimately a truly rewarding experience. You end up learning that you are someone who enjoys communication plus culture plus problem solving. Or you find that you are someone who likes journalism plus jail systems plus north-south divisions.

The silver lining is that, by the time you graduate, instead of just having a dream graduate school, or instead of even having a dream job, you are immensely more aware of yourself and the things that make you tick. You realize that, despite the struggles, you’ve been thriving this whole time, culminating in a final year of constant reflection on what caused your growth in the first place. What you reacted best to.
What brought out your best and your worst and thank goodness it did that.

You sift out the feelings, the grades, the homework, the shtick, and you realize what’s inherently you. That you’re so much more complex than just compounds. That you’re unlocking an equation that allows you to seek happiness and progress. That you’ve been employed this entire time in your most fitting role as yourself and you’ve spent all college working on the most important product you will ever create.