Does the nursing major belong at a liberal arts college?

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Every year, potential employers of our nursing graduates call me. The conversations usually go something like this: "One of your students is applying at our hospital. Luther College is a liberal arts school. What does that mean? Are they the same as any other graduate?" My answer is, no, they are not the same as any other graduate. My argument is that they are better! Of course, I am biased. Not only am I an employee of a liberal arts college, but also a graduate of one (Luther College class of 1995).

It may be useful to step back and define what a liberal arts education really is. While the liberal arts education has evolved immensely since its inception, it is generally agreed that the modern curriculum includes humanities (such as linguistics and literature), formal sciences (i.e. mathematics), social sciences (like psychology and history) and natural sciences (i.e. biology). The curriculum is meant to build a broad foundation of knowledge and skills. Additionally, in the United States, liberal arts colleges typically rely heavily on student participation and encourage a high level of student-teacher interaction, mentorship and collaboration. Most have lower student-teacher ratios, employing more faculty dedicated to teaching full-time, rather than using teaching assistants.

I've been in the nursing profession for 20 years and have seen dramatic changes in the role of the nurse in even that relatively short amount of time. Health care is much more complex now. Different opportunities in nursing have exploded in ways that I couldn't have even imagined when I first entered the profession. Nurses are asked more than ever before to lead groups and create change, analyze research and data, and write scientifically and persuasively. Nursing requires an immense amount of critical thinking, problem solving and communication. There is a need to effectively work in teams, flex to changing circumstances, and continually learn new knowledge and skills.

So how exactly do the humanities translate into strong nurses and positive results for health care? A liberal arts education stretches nursing students to think in different ways. They are challenged to appreciate their place in an increasingly global society and what that means when it comes to their future practice. By nature, nursing students in a liberal arts college aren't sitting in a giant lecture hall. Instead, they have more individualized attention from their professors that know their specific strengths and weaknesses and how to build on them, pull them into discussions, and ask them, "What do you think about this?" This is important to help them learn how their feelings and actions can impact patient care.

It's not only the nursing didactic courses, but also their time in labs and clinicals that have been shown to be important in forging the links between nursing practice and the liberal arts education. During those times, they are in smaller groups than a typical class and faculty have the opportunity to help make connections between the "core" college curriculum with what they are learning in their major.

Students aren't always aware of the benefit of their liberal arts education for a number of months after starting their first job. Research has shown that most new nurses start their profession on equal ground-trying to understand their role better, become efficient practitioners and strong members of the health care team. It's after they become more comfortable in the basic role that the benefits of the liberal arts education have shown to blossom. It's then they begin to stand out as leaders among their peers, more confidently addressing the complexity, ambiguity and rapid change inherent in practice. Georgia Nugent, the former president of Kenyon College, and currently a senior fellow at the Council of Independent College, stated once, "The liberal arts are still relevant because they prepare students to be flexible and adaptable to changing circumstances." Health care has been undergoing incredible change over the years, requiring nurses to be competent in new knowledge and skills very quickly.

Liberal arts colleges and universities have different cultures and missions. Not everyone is suited for a large university, and not everyone is comfortable in a smaller liberal arts college. High school students searching for where they want to go to college should choose a place that feels right to them. It is a very personal choice. However I hope this piece highlights how liberal arts education, rich in broad-based knowledge, has been shown to benefit both future nursing employers and patients.

La Donna McGohan

La Donna McGohan

La Donna McGohan, Luther College associate professor of nursing, is the head of the nursing department as well as a '95 graduate of the school. She completed her master's degrees in Nursing Education and Nursing Administration at Winona State University, and her Doctorate of Nursing Practice at Minnesota State University, Mankato. LaDonna's nursing interests are primarily in how religions influence the health care practices of their members.

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  • October 1 2015 at 5:16 pm
    Kathy Kilen
    I agree Dr. McGohan! Thanks for doing a great job articulating the value of the liberal arts education in developing our nurses for lifelong learning and change. One of the the great blessings of nursing is the opportunity to practice and grow in our profession in a multitude of roles and settings. I am thankful for the foundation of my liberal arts education at Luther and draw on this perspective as I teach nursing in a liberal arts institution!

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