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The Liberal Arts and Back to the Future?

Colleges can deepen their commitment to an education with purpose
University Business, Jul 2010

These are challenging times for higher education and the families that engage it. Colleges and universities are trying to preserve access and programming. Additionally, the economic crisis has stretched the budgets of many families, causing them to question more than ever before the possibility of sending their children to a liberal arts college where practicality and return on investment are not as immediately intuitive as they might appear to be at more pre-professionally and vocationally-driven institutions. Without a doubt, these are hard times for many liberal arts colleges. But it didn't have to be this way and still doesn't.

During this time of financial crisis, questioning, and even self-doubt in higher education, liberal arts colleges have the opportunity to respond by deepening their commitment to a purposeful education in the liberal arts and sciences. This pragmatic approach for our students and graduates is as valid today as when asserted (but not implemented) during another financially and politically turbulent period in American and global history in the late 18th century.

It was Dr. Benjamin Rush and his friend Thomas Jefferson who wanted American undergraduate education to break with the aristocratic course of study in English models--classical education absent contextualization in the demands of the emerging political world and an unflagging commitment to "learning for learning's sake." Rush instead wanted to introduce a "useful" education ("useful," however, not in the sense of specific job training--a most difficult distinction for America to grasp historically) that would stress the practical sciences, modern foreign languages (to include in Rush's case, Native American tongues), and the functioning of democratic government. The goal was not primarily to educate more clergy and professors, but to prepare citizens for all professions--to include the military, law, medicine, business, and government service--that would advance a just, compassionate, and economically viable democracy.

Without a doubt, these are hard times for many liberal arts colleges.

Unfortunately, the essential notion of a useful education that intentionally links liberal study with ultimate employment and public service in a democracy was never fully embraced by America's liberal arts colleges. Certainly, in the eyes of the general public the close linkage between liberal learning and the purposes of a democracy was lost, replaced by images of the liberal arts as impractical at best and an elitist luxury at worst. Thus, what is in fact old--the assertion of the usefulness of liberal learning--appears counterintuitive and even revolutionary today.

In these difficult times, many liberal arts colleges may try to answer contemporary challenges through significant mission redefinition and/or the addition of new schools or branches that are essentially vocational. That is a mistake that tries to respond to immediate crisis with short-term and inadequate solutions. The enduring value of a distinctively defined American liberal arts education remains our students' best response to current and future challenges. When the purpose of liberal arts is understood in its original American sense, there is no dichotomy between this course of study and "real world" engagement.

An affirmation of the liberal arts in a time of economic crisis may seem counter-intuitive and even self-destructive. We would argue quite the contrary. And we are not alone in doing so. Note, for example, the recent commentary in Newsweek titled, ironically, "The Death of the Liberal Arts: How the Recession and Unemployment Are Making Schools and Students Rethink the Value of an Education in the Humanities."

"While the tradition of the liberal arts education may be on the wane nationwide, the most elite schools, such as Harvard, Swarthmore, Middlebury, and Williams, remain committed to the ideal. These top schools are not tweaking their curriculums to add any pre-professional undergraduate programs. As the economy rebounds, their students, ironically, may be in the best spot. While studying the humanities [of course, an American liberal arts education includes also the sciences and social sciences] has become unfashionable and seemingly impractical, the liberal arts also teaches students to think big thoughts-big enough to see beyond specific college majors and adapt to a broader job market." (April 5, 2010).

It is hardly by chance that in this age of uncertainty and ambiguity, a "useful" liberal arts preparation for leadership is now shared among the quintessentially pragmatic profession, the military. Educational institutions like West Point (N.Y.) are embracing the liberal arts, and national recommendations for the reform of U.S. military officer preparation ("Keeping the Edge: Revitalizing America's Officer's Corps," February 2010) include attributes "owned" by the liberal arts, among them understanding how to communicate and speak across boundaries of culture; a knowledge of science, humanities, the arts, social science, and foreign languages; analytic capabilities; a rigorous study of history and the identification of enduring themes of human interaction, and most pointedly, leaning how to deal with defining characteristics of our age itself-uncertainty and ambiguity.

The lesson is clear if to some counterintuitive. The liberal arts in the United States represent exquisite preparation for students to manage well in the 21st century. Embracing the liberal arts is a pragmatic leap "back to the future"- to the insights of our country's founders that American's destiny and its ability to recreate itself depended on the liberal arts properly understood.

William G. Durden is the president of Dickinson College (Pa.) and Neil B. Weissman is provost and dean of the college.

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