Published: Dec. 16, 2020 By

As is always the case during significant crises, we need more dynamic, well-rounded critical thinkers

I won’t sugar-coat it: These are uniquely challenging times. 

When the novel coronavirus burst into the human world, we were all already vulnerable. Now, in one way or another, we are all affected. 

Like other sectors of our economy, higher education has been hit, with nationwide enrollment declining this fall by about 2.5%, and CU Boulder’s decline is about the same. Some evidence suggests that uncertainty—about the job market, the economy, the value of higher education—is taking a bite out of college enrollment this year. That is unfortunate. But today’s uncertainty is precisely why today is the time to pursue higher education.

James W.C. White, interim dean of the college

James W.C. White, interim dean of the college, soaks up the scenery in the foothills above Boulder. 

The looming questions humans faced before 2020—a better economy for all, human rights, racism, climate change, effective self-governance and human health—are still with us. So, too, are new conundrums about how to help people wracked by the pandemic and an economy that is partly in tatters.

As is always the case during significant crises, we need more dynamic, well-rounded critical thinkers. And the place that helps those rising stars meet their potential is here, in college. 

I know some people believe that a traditional liberal-arts education—which exposes students to a broad range of disciplines in the natural sciences, social sciences and arts and humanities—is less important in such times than degrees in technical arts or applied sciences.

We will, of course, need workers in technical fields, applied sciences and natural sciences. But we will need more. We will need geographers, linguists, classicists, historians, sociologists, artists, philosophers and writers. We will need interdisciplinary specialists who can speak intelligently with all of them.

The solutions to problems in the realm of the environment, human health, democratic institutions and others will surely involve science, engineering and technology. But the solutions will be propelled by and honed with a clear understanding of social sciences and the humanities.

A liberal-arts education—one that exposes students to the breadth of human knowledge—conveys skills in critical thinking, communication and adaptability. These are desperately needed skills. The alumni, researchers and teachers we profile in this edition exemplify these strengths.

So, if someone you know is having second thoughts about college, thinking that the time and tuition are not justified, please share two words from me: Think again.

James W.C. White is interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.