by Phil Thomas

On January 15, 1983, Professor Emeritus of Economics Phil Thomas addressed a group of prospective students and their parents. “The occasion was an Admissions Day and the topic was ‘Liberal Arts,’” wrote Thomas. “I ran across the talk when I was sorting through my professional files. Although it was not an economics talk, I referred to the recession at that time, which, up until now, had been the worst since the Great Depression. It made the talk seem eerily relevant.”

With Dr. Thomas’ permission, we’ve excerpted portions of his 1983 speech.

… You are here … to learn more of what a college like Kalamazoo is all about, and … my role is to discuss “the liberal arts”…

I asked several colleagues what they would say in a speech of this kind, and perhaps the best answer was this: “There is a saying,” said a fellow professor, which goes like this:

“If you give a man a fish, you may feed him for a day, but if you teach him how to fish, he and his family will eat for a lifetime.”

In a sense, at a liberal arts college we are teaching “how to fish.” That is, if you train a person in a specific trade, he may be prepared for a particular job upon graduation. But if you help a person learn how to think, how to analyze problems, how to find and examine alternatives, how to reach decisions, how to write and speak clearly and effectively, then you are preparing a person for a lifetime. In our rapidly changing world, it is not enough to prepare for one job, because it may well be obsolete within a decade. Rather, one should learn how to learn, how to adapt, how to be flexible and creative, how to respond productively to new situations….

This is the goal of the liberal arts curriculum. On essay exams, term papers, and in small seminar discussions, students are constantly encouraged to think—and think again—and to express themselves both orally and in writing. I try to write extensive comments on term papers and essay exams, as do my colleagues. Criticism is often hard to take, especially when one has labored hours in the library and at the typewriter. But nine out of ten students who come to see me, as three did yesterday, will say something like this:

“I didn’t do as well as I wanted on that last quiz…”

“I don’t fully understand your criticism and suggestions. Could you elaborate…”

“Can you help me do better on my next exam?” or term paper?

Relatively small class sizes and some very concerned teachers create a situation here where such student/faculty sessions are the rule, not the exception.

Dr. Theodore Schultz, who won the 1979 Nobel Prize in Economics, lectured here at Kalamazoo College two months ago. Recently, I heard a speech by Dr. Lawrence Klein, the economics Nobel Prize winner in 1980 (who will be our guest this coming spring). Both of these eminent scholars highlighted and emphasized the importance of rapid technical change, particularly in the area of information systems, and the growing role and contribution of well-educated people. Professor Schultz, in particular, said the only practical education in today’s world is that provided by the liberal arts. …

I want to emphasize that we are a liberal arts faculty. One of the math professors is a fine pianist and another is a violinist and bell-ringer. In English, Con Hilberry, who was a fine high hurdler on the same Oberlin College track team on which I ran the mile, is now better known as a widely-read poet.

You should expect our foreign language professors to be fluent and to travel extensively to keep up in their fields, and they do. Five I can think of offhand were abroad last year. But we have a history professor whose special field is Germany, who is fluent in the language (and who is studying there now, on leave). We have two anthropologists who work in Latin America virtually every year and who are fluent in Spanish. (Dr. Marigene Arnold is in Mexico right now.) A theatre arts professor is engaged in an ongoing project in Surinam, a former Dutch colony on the north coast of South America. He knows the up-country language well, and he speaks sufficient Dutch to get along in the capital city. …

Numerous other faculty members have pursued their work in English-speaking countries abroad. I am recently back from an 18-month assignment in Nairobi, where I served as an international economic advisor to the government of Kenya; and during the past two decades I have also worked in Swaziland, Pakistan, and India. English professor Herb Bogart is just back from a year’s leave in Australia, and his department colleague Hal Harris leaves soon for England.

We take pride in being a faculty which continues to probe, study, and publish in our special fields, while, through travel, reading, and other activities we maintain our liberal arts education, so that we can better communicate its relevance to our students.

[Allow me to make a related point.] I’m going to tell you about Dr. Gardner Ackley, who was the
"We are preparing a person for a lifetime in a rapidly changing world."
top economic adviser to President Johnson, who is president of the American Economic Association, [and who] is recognized as one of the greatest economists in the U.S. during the past two decades. His undergraduate double major was English and history.

I’m going to tell you about Dr. Paul McCracken, who was the top economic adviser to President Nixon. He teaches at the University of Michigan (as does Professor Ackley), and he is recognized as one of the top U.S. economists in the field of money and macro economics. He had one undergraduate major: English.

I don’t want to downgrade the versatility of a bachelor’s degree in economics, so let me mention that one of my classmates (Oberlin, 1950) who majored in economics is now a world renowned pianist who has toured Russia and Europe, given several concerts in Carnegie Hall, and last spring played at Kalamazoo College. Another fellow economics major is now a professor of medicine at the University of Illinois.

Kim Erickson ’73, one of Kalamazoo College’s recent economics majors, is today a dentist. I don’t want to belabor this point, but one can never be certain what work one will end up doing. In my opinion, if you want to be in a position to view the ever-changing job market not as a frustrating problem but as an exciting opportunity, you should seriously consider a liberal arts education. …

I think the meaning of “liberal arts” can be summarized with four C-words. The first is competence in whatever you are doing. The second is comprehension. Understand what you are doing and why. What is the background? Where is it leading? …

The third attribute is confidence, a sense of self-worth and self-respect. When I first came to “K” I remember how impressed I was with the seniors. The fact that I had been in India and seen the Taj Mahal, and I had worked in Pakistan and visited the site of the ancient Mohanjadaro civilization did not phase those students. They had seen the Berlin Wall, Michelangelo’s David in Florence, and the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. They were confident, assertive, thoughtful, and articulate—and they still are.

The final “C” stands for compassion. What’s it all about? Why be competent, comprehending, and confident? Without compassion for one’s fellow man, learning has no heart and no significant purpose, so this final “C” is a most vital component of my definition of the liberal arts education. …

Photo - Dr. Phil Thomas, economist and liberal arts advocate, in the 1980s.

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Alice Lynette Blanchard on January 18, 2012 at 12:36 pm
I thoroughly enjoyed reading excerpts from your speech. Lynette Spath Blanchard K=College 1939=1941
Madeleine Costanza K 86 on January 18, 2012 at 4:16 pm
I took my first economics class with Dr. Thomas in the winter quarter of 1983 - just when this presentation was made. What a pleasure to read his thoughts and be reminded of what a clear thinker he is, and what a terrific sense of humor and perspective he has! Dr. Thomas, we miss you!
Tom Brown, Class of '67 on January 19, 2012 at 5:16 pm
Dr. Thomas, it was great to read your words of wisdom. I do attribute my liberal arts education at K, to include study abroad in Germany, with my being more socially liberal and able to bend and weave in the world of finance. Thanks again for your excellent schooling in economics. As I have told you in a previous communication, I used economic theory every day while pursuing my professional career as a banker and as a "teacher" to the Financial Representatives at Northwestern Mutual. Best wishes to you, Dr. T.
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