Liberal arts seems to be getting short shrift these days. A recent article in the New York Times reports that some states are considering cutting funding of liberal arts to increase funding for STEM programs.
Luckily, some colleges still promote liberal arts through their curricula and discussion-based pedagogy. St. Mary’s College of California is one, and it is this emphasis on the liberal arts that earned it a place among the Colleges that Change Lives Consortium.
I have just returned from a visit to St.Mary’s College, only a short drive away in Moraga, yet its pastoral and serene setting making it seem much farther from the hustle-bustle of the San Francisco Bay Area peninsula. In a discussion with Associate Admissions Director Patrick Lorenzo, my colleagues and I learned about the school’s Lasallian mission of “entering to learn, leaving to serve.” The Christian Brothers founders’ core principles stress “quality education,” an “inclusive community, and “concern for the poor and social justice.” These were all evident during our visit to the school as we encountered friendly and helpful students, witnessed service outreach programs, and learned about a new program launched in religious pluralism.
Required courses at St. Mary’s include a one semester per year humanities or Great Books class and two courses in religion—the first is a kind of “Bible as literature” analysis and the second can be one of many options from explorations of other religions to Christianity to ethics and philosophy. The school’s “jewel” program span across its three schools of business, liberal and sciences: biology, psychology, communications, English, Political Science, marketing and finance and a new business concentration in digital media.
In addition to the liberal arts curriculum, the school operates on a traditional small college 4-1-4 calender with a very popular “Jan Term,” or 4 week term for students to explore non-traditional
classes and accompany faculty on world-wide travel for academic or service purposes. Our tour guide had just returned from a month in Italy exploring Renaissance art. Semester long study abroad programs are also popular with St. Mary’s students.
Despite its broad and inclusive curriculum and community, St. Mary’s “vibe” is still quite Catholic. Chapel attendance is optional yet there appears to be no other on campus worship opportunities for students of other faiths. Crucifixes adorn hallways in classroom buildings, even inside the brand-new recreation center with its gleaming exercise machines and climbing wall. Some non-religious or students of other faiths may feel uncomfortable here. Nonetheless, the college is clearly making efforts to open dialogue about faith and other faiths and its commitment to open and critical inquiry through the liberal arts is noteworthy.