Q&A

"The critics of the liberal arts are getting more vocal simply because of the economy and because of a marketplace where people who have jobs to offer want more specialized experience at the front end."

-- Chilton D. Varner

The Academic Exchange: Why did you agree to serve on the committee?

Chilton Varner: I graduated from a small-town Southern high school, and through a series of fortuitous events ended up at a women’s liberal arts college in Massachusetts. That experience to me was most unexpected and transformative. I believe in the liberal arts, and I’m eager to have an opportunity to help Emory explore the future of liberal arts. 

AE: How has the standing of the liberal arts shifted over the last few decades?

CV: The liberal arts are under siege. That’s a function of many different things. Part of it is the price of higher education and the pressure to produce graduates who can immediately add value in a country that increasingly values productivity. The critics of the liberal arts are getting more vocal simply because of the economy and because of a marketplace where people who have jobs to offer want more specialized experience at the front end. 

Some people consider a liberal arts degree self-indulgent and not of immediate practical value. I disagree. Looking at how fast and quickly the world operates and how decisions get made nowadays, people trained in the liberal arts learn to think more critically; they make decisions in a way that takes into account more constituencies. One of the greatest attributes of a liberal arts education is the variety you’re exposed to, which I think creates interests that are more diverse, broader, and deeper than one might develop if insulated in a specialized course of study. I believe those attributes will become more valuable, not less, as the days go by. 

AE: How do you think liberal arts education needs to adapt to the times? 

CV: The guardians of the liberal arts will have to continue to be flexible. The core curriculum in liberal arts colleges these days doesn’t resemble the curriculum that I had. I believe interdisciplinarity will be a hallmark of good education going forward, whether that’s in a research university or in a liberal arts college. Our provost, Earl Lewis, often asks if in the twenty-first century you can have a liberal arts curriculum that doesn’t include a basic engineering course because of the importance of engineering in the everyday lives of most people. We have to look for ways in which you take one discipline, for example music, and marry it to another, thereby informing both music and the other discipline in ways that would not be available were they to remain in separate silos. 

AE: What impact has your liberal arts background had on your life? 

CV: It has been pivotal in my life and my career decisions. I don’t think I would have gone to law school had I not had an outstanding undergraduate education at Smith College that taught me to think critically about things that matter. It taught me to be a problem solver. My writing skills were considerably better than they might have been, and writing skills are of paramount importance to a lawyer. In the past fifteen years, I’ve done a great deal of work in product liability litigation. Part of that is learning how things work, whether it is a pharmaceutical or an automobile or an artificial hip. I have to understand those products at a level sufficient to teach others—the jury—about them. I have to explain how these products work, and I’m better at doing that because I had a liberal arts education. 

AE: What are your expectations for the commission? 

CV: This is an opportunity for Emory to be a real leader in the field. We could play an important role by talking about how we should do, and do well, the liberal arts in this country and time. I hope the commission comes up with a number of responses to the assault that the liberal arts face. One small action that would be useful would be to incorporate a discussion of liberal arts into freshmen orientation. It would be terrific to have a panel of trustees, community leaders, and Emory graduates who make the case for the liberal arts. You’d be amazed at the number of people who have been exceedingly successful and who owe their success to a liberal arts education. I think it would be useful to get young people excited about the liberal arts in a world where lots of people say you need to major in business or focus on one profession. I believe there are folks who truly realize the value of liberal arts, and I hope that Emory can spread that view. We’ll be poorer as an intellectual community if we don’t.