I went to college during a very unique period in American history. I graduated from Berkeley High School in June 1964 and started my undergraduate education at Whitworth College (now Whitworth University) in September 1964. That fall, the Free Speech Movement, which would change the nation, was in full bloom on the University of California, Berkeley campus. While trips home reminded me of the ongoing turmoil across university campuses, my time at Whitworth was almost idyllic.
I enrolled at Whitworth fully intent on going to medical school. My father had wanted to be a doctor, and he pushed me in this direction. But I had a history teacher in high school who really challenged me to think. I was also an avid reader, and I wanted to learn more about literature and history and art. Whitworth was the perfect place to pursue my intellectual curiosity; in addition to my science classes, I took classes in English, public speaking, and history during my freshman year.
My liberal arts education, rather than preparing me for a specific career, gave me the tools to be successful at virtually any career.
These classes changed my life. They opened the door to a new world, a nuanced one involving unique ways of looking at the world that could not be described by mathematical equations. They underscored the importance of art or an artistic approach in every profession, even in biology. As a result of these classes, I double majored in English and chemistry and went on to earn a master’s degree in English literature at San Francisco State University. To support myself in school and to meet my military obligation, I did alternate military service by working at a hospital in San Francisco. This is where I discovered my love of scientific research, a lifelong passion, and I went on to earn a PhD in physiology and pharmacology at University of California, San Diego.
People often ask me if going from literature to science was difficult. The answer is a resounding yes. But in one important way it was not difficult: I possessed a wonderful liberal arts education. My Whitworth humanities professors taught me to analyze data critically, to think creatively and analytically, to make associations and to see relationships, and to present my thoughts in an organized way. These are tools that I use every day as a professor in a medical school and in my research. My liberal arts education, rather than preparing me for a specific career, gave me the tools to be successful at virtually any career.
One defining human characteristic is that we seek an understanding of transcendental truths. This desire makes humans unique. A thousand years ago, the principle was that one had to withdraw from life to discover its transcendental truths. This is unacceptable in the modern world. A good liberal arts education should give you the intellectual foundation and emotional security to become part of the world. We grow by challenging ourselves. What truths we discover and the successes we enjoy depend on how we challenge ourselves. One of the enduring goals of a liberal arts education is to give us the confidence to rise to virtually any challenge.