[Herald Interview] Helping students make connections across fields
Amherst chief emphasizes value of liberal arts and interdisciplinary thinking
Published : Oct 5, 2014 - 21:18
Updated : Oct 5, 2014 - 21:18
As humanity progresses into the 21st century, the ability to cross between previously unrelated fields of study is becoming more important. Whether it is converging biology and engineering, design and technology or Internet technology and nanotechnology, there has been growing demand for individuals to transcend the boundaries of disciplines and address the problems at hand.

As the world becomes more complex and uncertain, the value of liberal arts education that helps students acquire such an ability increases, said Carolyn “Biddy” Martin, president of Amherst College in the U.S.

“Having some depth of knowledge across a range of fields and then expertise in a particular field is a great combination. It allows people to make creative connections between and among domains, or to draw on different disciplines to try and solve complicated problems,” she said.

“I think a liberal arts education provides those abilities and they’re transferrable to virtually any career. So, it’s great preparation not necessarily for any one particular job, but for all jobs.”

According to Martin, the exposure to various fields of study allows a student to think both critically and analytically because they can think in different “modes.” Whereas people generally tend to approach a problem from an aspect coherent with their specialty, liberal arts educators challenge students to think in different perspectives, she said.
Carolyn Martin, the president of Amherst College. (Amherst College)

“In that way, it is superior to training in just one field, because of the surprising connections that our students and graduates are able to make across different domains,” she said. “What you need is to be able to think in a nimble way, a flexibility of mind and rigor in your thinking so that as things change, we can adapt to them and we can move across different fields.”

Students at the Massachusetts-based institute are encouraged to explore various academic fields via its open curriculum that does not have general education requirements, a system adopted by only five schools in the United States including Brown University. For the first two years of college, a student can freely take any classes to discover his or her passion before declaring a major by the end of sophomore year.

The only emphasis Amherst places on the younger students is writing. “We believe writing is one of those foundational abilities that serves people well no matter what they do,” Martin said.

Martin said that undergraduates studying liberal arts are inclined to ask more challenging questions compared to graduates, due to their lack of expertise in their fields of study. The combination of studying in remote disciplines prompts students to ask questions from various perspectives, which can be stimulating academically for both students and faculty members.

The dynamic student-faculty interaction is boosted by the small student-to-faculty ratio at the school, which hovers around 8-1.

Martin also stressed diversity at Amherst’s education model.

“For some time, Amherst has emphasized the importance of attracting the most talented students in every corner of the U.S. and the world,” she said. In order to do so, the school has engaged in what Martin called an “aggressive recruitment and admissions policy” to visit parts of the U.S. and foreign countries to find talent regardless of their economic circumstances. The school provides needs-based financial aid for roughly 80 percent of the international students and 60 percent of all students.

Diversifying both the students and faculty at Amherst, which she said was one of its primary goals, is in keeping with Martin’s philosophy to provide learning opportunities for a wide range of students. “One of our key priorities is internationalization, which includes continuing to attract students from outside the U.S. It also means adding to the curriculum so students have an opportunity to learn more about various parts of the world, and also adding new faculty.”

Although Martin’s roots were in the humanities, she also stressed the importance of fields like life science, which shares with liberal arts the characteristic of requiring an interdisciplinary way of thinking.

“People say if the 20th century was the century of physics, the 21st century is the century of life science,” she said, adding that science facilities should be in the same place as other disciplines so that students can interact with other fields and “try to solve problems on the basis on interdisciplinary collaboration.”

By Yoon Min-sik (