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An Education Rich in the Liberal Arts

Fall 2013 | By Stacey Mickelbart. Photo by John Underwood..

Purdue’s current president, Mitch Daniels, is the product of a liberal arts education, with a BA in public and international affairs leading to a law degree and a successful career in both industry and public service. THiNK editor Stacey Mickelbart recently sat down with President Daniels to find out how this background has shaped his ideas about a Purdue education.

“I’ve always believed that the liberal arts aren’t in competition with the STEM disciplines—they’re essential to them,” he says, pointing out that he stressed this at his first Purdue commencement speech.

Boilermakers, he explained to graduates and their families in May, “armed with a rounded education, rich in the liberal arts, go into the world prepared to lead, and to teach, in a time of unprecedented complexity.” That’s because Purdue produces “engineers and scientists who can distill, demystify, and communicate complex questions to their fellow citizens, and liberal arts graduates who absorbed enough of the transformative science of the day to teach it to our children or help shape the sound choices and tradeoffs that a free society must make together.”

Making those complex choices is aided in large part by critical thinking, says Daniels, which is “the essential skill one hopes higher education will cultivate, regardless of discipline.” While there are many ways to teach it, his own education consisted of frequent explorations in the Socratic method, as well as lots of writing. Instructor feedback is invaluable, he feels, especially from “those teachers and professors who expose flaws in your thinking or point out an angle or question you didn’t think about.”

Daniels stresses that communication and writing are essential, asserting that “an ability to employ the language with some fluency will be valuable no matter what your pursuits in life.” He also believes that wrestling with tough questions is vital, pointing out that “studying great figures and moments in history helps you make decisions and make connections between events that would otherwise elude you.”

Purdue’s international culture was one factor in the “pro” column when Daniels considered the top job, and he sees Purdue as a leader in helping graduates prepare for successful lives around the globe. “Free institutions of the kind that we take for granted are not the rule in history,” he says. “They’re not the rule in other cultures. And they’re not necessarily permanent. This is something that you’re not likely to learn even in the finest engineering class.” And that, he says, is one reason why the liberal arts are indispensable.


When I was at Purdue, the only way to do liberal arts was to "fake" it in the Science School. Nonetheless, it worked if one read the catalogue carefully, found the "400" numbered individual studies, and then arranged for a program involving them.

Robert Weiss, B.S. 1942 Portland, Oregon

From the editor

Mr. Weiss, we appreciate your efforts to engage in a liberal arts education at Purdue during the 1940s, and promise that now you'd have no trouble doing so! We hope you've also enjoyed our piece about the 50th anniversary of the formation of the School of Humanities, Social Science, and Education, just over 20 years after you graduated, as the precursor to the College of Liberal Arts as we know it today.


Actions speak louder than words. What actions has Daniels taken to support liberal arts since he became president of Purdue? What has happened to the enrollment in the College of Education since NCATE certification was dropped under Governor Daniels?

Terry Brendel (BA 1969, HSSE)

From the editor

President Mitch Daniels recently authorized $3 million in discretionary funds, matching a $3 million anonymous donation, to support professorships in the Department of History. These funds will allow the department to develop a niche specialty in the history of science, technology, and medicine. Read more about the gift and university investment in THiNK. NCATE certification is still required by the state of Indiana, but for other questions about teacher certification or enrollment, contact the College of Education.

I wonder what Pres. Daniels is doing to encourage the state's minority youngsters to aspire and afford to earn a Purdue degree to help themselves, their state, and their country.

Abe J. Goldsmith, Class of 1951

Mitch is a brilliant man whom I've have had the pleasure of knowing since Sunday School. He has many attributes, including a well-rounded education, which qualify him to be among the greatest leaders our country has ever known. The state of Indiana, Purdue, and everyone who has known or read him, have benefited from his tireless public service.


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