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Liberal arts living: UMBC fosters healthy social debate

When students are asked what UMBC is, they often start by describing it as a small research university. Yet, UMBC is classified as a liberal arts school.

But what differentiates a liberal arts college from a ‘regular’ university? This seems to be lost on many UMBC students who focus much more on the research side of things. A liberal arts university aims to educate their students in culture, arts and humanities in order to provoke critical thinking about society and the world around us.

Students need to start taking the liberal arts aspect seriously if they plan on graduating as well rounded students. No matter how unimportant these classes may seen, they play a critical role in helping students touch on things that typical STEM classes don’t.

I realized the value of liberal arts classes as a junior after forcing myself to take that culture class that I had been putting off for so long. It was midway through the semester and we had already talked about everything from racism and Islamophobia to white privilege and social mobility.

They differ greatly from the typical STEM courses where you read a textbook, memorize and “learn” the material, and spit it back out onto an exam. Liberal arts classes are subjective, and aim to promote a higher level of thinking, independence and open-mindedness.

Some topics were very “sensitive” ones. The class put me in an environment where I was able to openly discuss my opinions with my peers, and also hear the experiences and opinions of people from other cultures. Where else can you find an environment that puts together diverse groups of people of different backgrounds to talk about such things?

Coddling the students of America from discussing these “sensitive” topics prevents them from gaining a better understanding of the people, community and world around them. We live in a country described as the cultural melting pot of the world. On an even more local scale, we attend a university that presents itself as being a diverse learning space with students from all around the world. Students need to understand and take advantage of the benefits that come from that.

Since it’s just another college course at UMBC, it may not seem like anything special. Yet, I ended up shaking the hand of a mayoral candidate for Baltimore, DeRay McKesson. Ultimately, I felt that my understanding of major societal issues was greatly bolstered.

Plenty of UMBC’s own refuse to follow the mayoral race, or issues in the city. They ignore candidates’ platforms and vote blindly, if at all. Yet, shaking McKesson’s hand, I heard his take on the damaged state of the city. It taught me the importance of being an involved citizen, and the impact that you can have on the community around you.

Liberal arts universities provide the benefit of close interactions between students and faculty through small class sizes, making it easier for classes to engage in important discussions over unfavorable but important topics. Those classes are there to help you think critically, not shape how you think. They provoke the development of a higher sense of moral and cognitive development. As students, and for the future of our country, we need to become involved and take advantage of these opportunities presented to us.