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Classical Curriculum: Steeped in tradition

Liberal arts institutions touting the value of their classic approach to academics
University Business, Feb 2013

A classic liberal arts education, long viewed as a firm foundation for a successful professional life, has taken a backseat in recent years to more career-specific training. To remain competitive, many colleges and universities have added pre-professional programs and, in some cases, slashed liberal arts requirements. However, some colleges remain committed to a traditional liberal arts curriculum and continue to find success. These institutions have chosen to focus not on how to adjust their offerings to meet current market demands, but on how to educate the market about the value of what they offer. According to Georgia Nugent, president of Kenyon College (Ohio), only 130 of the nation’s approximately 4,000 colleges are “true liberal arts colleges,” meaning they offer no pre-professional programs.

While the number of colleges that classify as strictly liberal arts has decreased, our understanding of what constitutes the liberal arts must continue to evolve, according to Arthur Levine, president emeritus of Columbia Teachers College and president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. “The liberal arts have never been a constant; they are always changing,” Levine says. “And the liberal arts have always been really practical. Even when Harvard was teaching people Latin, it was practical; they were training people to be ministers.”

Today, colleges offering a classic liberal arts education must continue to make that education practical to succeed. “Most students go to college to prepare for careers,” Levine says. “Even in the height of the idealistic 1960s, most students were going to college to prepare for a career, not just to gain a high-minded education. The liberal arts have always had to keep one foot in the library and one foot in the streets. They always have been practical, and they must continue to be.”

Making it Practical

Those who advocate a traditional, liberal arts-focused education say that its strengths lie in the skills, rather than the specific knowledge, it imparts. The advent of technology means the world will continue to change quickly, so the knowledge learned by students in specific career tracks will have a short shelf life. In contrast, those who obtain a general liberal arts education will develop adaptable skills that can serve them well as their world continues to evolve.

“There is nothing fancy about the merits of a classical curriculum: It simply demands hard work; namely, great quantities of reading, writing, and discussing,” says Charley Dewberry, founder and dean of Gutenberg College (Ore.), which employs a Great Books curriculum, with all students taking the same courses and obtaining the same degree, a B.A. in liberal arts. “When these skills are developed, they work dynamically together in the same way that strength, flexibility, and agility work together for the ballet dancer.”

Dewberry notes that people tend to change jobs and occupational fields several times throughout their lives. “A dynamic ability to absorb information, adjust to organizational goals, and navigate complex work relationships seems essential for today’s worker,” he says. “For this reason, a classical approach seems even more useful to today’s market. It is ironic that the classical approach is being neglected at a time that its fruit might be most nourishing.”

A liberal arts education provides training to develop skills that transcend any one discipline, such as problem solving, critical thinking, technical and quantitative expertise, verbal and written communications, an appreciation of aesthetics, and the ability to conduct research, says Lori Kletzer, vice president of academic affairs and dean of faculty at Colby College (Maine). “Many of today’s graduates are likely to be practicing disciplines that we know nothing about at the moment. That’s the dynamism of the workplace and our world in general. These skills will help them acquire and master those disciplines, long after they have left our classrooms.”

Still, liberal arts colleges must prepare their students for employability upon graduation, Levine acknowledges. For that reason, he recommends accompanying a liberal arts education with workplace internships, practical minors, and senior projects that are germane to both a student’s studies and the real world. For instance, “an art major might put together a few classes in science as a minor so she can become a medical illustrator, or an English major may put together a few technology courses so he can become a technical writer,” Levine says. “An internship or a senior project offers an opportunity to take the skills you’re developing in the classroom and use them in the real world.”

Recruiting for a Traditional Curriculum

Schools that aren’t focused on pre-professional tracks of study are unique, and communicating that uniqueness is a vital part of their recruiting process. “We make it clear to prospectives that the all-required, interdisciplinary curriculum is markedly different than most institutions,” says Gabe Gomez, director of communications at St. John’s College, which has campuses in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Annapolis, Maryland. Clearly, that different approach isn’t for everyone, so recruiting efforts are aimed at students who understand its value. “A St. John’s education is a complete, balanced, and rigorous experience designed for those students looking to think deeply and question fundamental principles of Western Culture,” he shares. Enrollment officials seek students who want to “break through to the foundation or authentic ideas found within the Great Books and to then assess and build their own conclusions,” adds Gomez. “We are looking for thoughtful readers who are moved by powerful experiences with books, and who are actively looking for answers and their place in the world.”

Gutenberg’s Dewberry describes his college’s marketing and recruiting process as two-pronged: Focusing on students and supporters who already know they like the great books approach, and attempting to find those “who WOULD like a great books approach—if they only knew about it,” he explains.

Gutenberg uses technology to target both groups. For the first group, “we spend a lot of effort optimizing our web presence to attract people searching for a great books education,” Dewberry says. To find those in the second group, Gutenberg is very active in social media. “Our strategy is to create conversations amongst friends who will pass the word to like-minded friends who might not know what a great books approach is,” Dewberry says.

Gutenberg built its own database to track potential students, filling it mostly with prospects from a company called Cappex, which helps students match their profiles with colleges that suit their interests. “Every day I receive a spreadsheet of two to eight students supplied by Cappex,” says Tim McIntosh, a Gutenberg instructor who helps with recruitment. “These students go into our database and are given a score. The more we have contact with a student, and the more that student shows interest, the higher his score goes.”

Gutenberg also contracts with a social media marketing firm to help maximize the school’s search-engine optimization score. During the past 16 months, Gutenberg has worked to boost its activity on Facebook. For instance, 16 months ago, the school updated its Facebook status once every few days and had 120 “likes.” Now, school officials update the status daily and “likes” have increased to 661.

Starting conversations is the school’s chief method of adding Facebook followers. For instance, McIntosh recently posted a quiz, “Do you know your world religions?” The post garnered 34 replies. But Gutenberg’s Facebook strategy “hasn’t completely synced with our recruiting strategy,” McIntosh adds, because it’s difficult to identify whether Facebook contacts are potential students.

Surviving in the Marketplace

Although the current market seems to demand that higher education become more career-focused, real-world evidence suggests that traditional liberal arts education remains a pathway to student success. “It’s no secret that liberal arts colleges and elite universities define the universe of the most selective higher education institutions, and we don’t quibble over the fact that their record of success is in clear evidence,” says Kletzer. “Other recent evidence bolsters our estimation of the worth of a liberal arts degree. A recent study determined that a disproportionate number of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, leaders from The Chronicle of Philanthropy’s Philanthropy 400, and U.S. senators held liberal arts degrees. We don’t believe that finding to be an anomaly.”

Most college ranking systems and guides address “inputs,” such as a college’s resources or endowment size, more than “outputs,” such as student satisfaction and involvement in learning, says Stephanie Fabritius, vice president for academic affairs and dean at Centre College (Ky.). One exception is the annual National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), which surveys students in their freshman and senior years on “outputs” such as Level of Academic Challenge, Active and Collaborative Learning, Student-Faculty Interaction, Enriching Educational Experiences and Supportive Campus Environment.

On this measurement, “liberal arts colleges often score very well,” Fabritius says. “Students of the liberal arts fare well and are especially robust in a changing world. … They are equipped to be problem solvers.”

Many traditional liberal arts colleges are experiencing increasing rates of applications. For instance, Colby’s applications for first-time freshmen climbed from 3,873 in 2002 to 5,241 in 2012.

At Kenyon, the goal is not to grow but to remain consistent enrollment of about 1,650 students. However, applications have skyrocketed. “When I arrived at Kenyon 10 years ago, the hope was that applications would reach 2,000,” Nugent says. “They are now over 4,000, for approximately 400 spaces in the freshman class.”

Enrollment at Centre College has increased by 28 percent over the past 10 years, from 1,045 to 1,337. At the same time, the average ACT score has increased by 1.3 points, from 27 to 28.3, and students of color, as a percentage, have roughly doubled.

For students who want to continue their study in graduate school, liberal arts degrees can provide a strong foundation. For instance, 70 percent of St. John’s graduates enroll in graduate programs. But plenty of liberal arts graduates do go directly into the working world.

At Centre College, an average of 85 percent of students take opportunities to study abroad, often in college residential programs and in courses designed and taught by Centre faculty. Eighty percent of Centre students participate in volunteer and community service opportunities while in college.

“There’s a national bandwagon movement that says, ‘We need short-term certificates to get people into that first job,’ ” notes Nugent. Yet typically, she argues, liberal arts graduates end up with higher-paying careers—maybe not in that first year, but down the road.”

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