Defending the liberal arts

A new book celebrates the “gold standard” of learning

While details of President Obama’s college affordability proposals are not fully known, what is clear is that higher education is going under the microscope to prove its value. Add to that a growing chorus of pundits who believe that a liberal arts education is a waste of time and a relic of the past.

But two college presidents argue in a new book that a liberal arts education is, in fact, crucial to not just boosting the economy but to solving many of the world’s problems. “What you have to do is to learn the tools of learning itself,” says Swarthmore College (Pa.)President Rebecca Chopp. “The liberal arts are, in a very real sense, the gold standard for that type of approach.”

Co-edited by Chopp and Daniel Weiss, president of Haverford College (Pa.), Remaking College: Innovation and the Liberal Arts (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013) brings together a distinguished group of higher ed leaders to define the American liberal arts model, describe the challenges these institutions face, and propose sustainable solutions.

How do you respond to the critics of a liberal education?

Chopp: What these small residential colleges, like the ones we discuss in our book, do is to model a type of undergraduate education that is broadly based. Today, community colleges, state colleges, research universities and some of the for-profits all attempt to model themselves after the kind of education we offer.

And what is that? It’s about a type of critical thinking and learning how to learn. It’s about bringing the disciplines together. It’s a problem-based learning approach. We contend that you can’t just learn everything you need to know for your entire life in four years.

Employers are saying they need not just people with technical skills, but people who can think critically, people who know how to work collaboratively. They need fast, agile thinkers who can think deeply and quickly about a topic.

So I think there is quite a big disconnect between what people must imagine goes on in undergraduate education at liberal arts colleges and what, in reality, goes on. If you look at our graduation rates and our employment rates, they are the highest in the country.

Weiss: I think there are two issues before us. One is that for a variety of factors well known to all of us, higher education is changing very quickly. The affordability problem, the concern about outcomes, the demographic changes in the student population, the presence of technology in new ways—all of those things are changing everything, so what do we do about that?

The other issue within that mix is that colleges which purvey a liberal arts education represent a very small sector of a system that hasn’t had strong advocacy. The public debate is shifting away from liberal arts because people don’t understand it.

Chopp: I find it interesting that schools from nations around the world—in Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, Western Europe, Latin America—come to the United States to learn about small liberal arts colleges and liberal arts education. Why? Because it has traditionally been linked to innovation, to critical thinking and to creative thinking.

So just as the public in the U.S. has decided that liberal education may be out of date, it is the emerging trend in higher education in other countries. They want to know about our business models and our administrative practices, and—just as important to the liberal arts approach—they want to learn about philanthropy.

What do they want to know about philanthropy?

Chopp: We have a tradition in this country of supporting institutions like higher education. We have been tremendously philanthropic around higher ed, so schools like Swarthmore and Haverford are able to have endowments that supply financial aid so people who can’t pay our tuition can still attend.

In other countries, higher education is often supported only through the government and is therefore available to a select few people, controlled by the government. This notion of a linkage of philanthropy, access and financial aid is of great interest to a great many countries.

You said that people generally don’t understand what liberal education is. How do you change that perception?

Weiss: We need to develop language and arguments that resonate with the needs and issues that people are concerned with today. There has been a lot written about why liberal education is a time-honored, valuable way of creating a life of meaning and purpose, but those arguments tend to be defensive and written from one academic to another.

The public’s concern is, “What’s the best way for my student to get an education that will help him be successful in life?”

They see evidence that a liberal education doesn’t equip people for a first job. It’s not going to get them a job as an accountant or a surgeon or whatever, therefore they discount the value of that. They also see that this kind of education tends to be very expensive.

I think the way we shift the argument is to make clear what the real aims of education are, and those are the things Rebecca talked about. But we have to do that in language and with evidence—genuine data—that shows that students who do well getting a liberal education have the skills they need to be successful, and are actually accomplishing in life what they want to.

The data exists, but it needs to be presented in a way that is more compelling.

How does your book help make that argument?

Weiss: The book is aimed at both the public and at academics. It is intended to show that small liberal arts colleges are completely in the mix when thinking about how to be vibrant and successful even in the face of all these challenges we talked about. There is lots of evidence of innovation in the book, and new ways in which time-honored values are being enacted.

Chopp: We will soon be working on a second book that is very much aimed at the public.

What kind of essays are in the current book, and who contributed to it?

Weiss: The idea was that the book would be authored primarily by sitting presidents of liberal arts colleges, people on the ground who are making decisions right now. Much of what gets written around higher education is by people who are scholars and critics of the industry, but we wanted this book to use the voice of the people who are actually contending with the issues daily.

What is the president of Williams College going to do about technology? What does the president of the Mellon Foundation think about the future of liberal arts colleges?

The authors speak to these issues in a way that shows the connection between the problems we face and the innovative solutions we are developing.

Chopp: The book came out of a conference we organized around some of the big themes in higher education—finance, costs, the business model, technology, residential education, interdisciplinary knowledge and so on—and the participants agreed to submit their essays for the book.

I think what surprised us at the conference, and what comes across in the book, is the amount of tremendous innovation going on in the liberal arts. It’s not as if presidents have to sit around and force it to happen. We are seeing faculty and students and staff doing some incredibly innovative things around the drivers of change in higher ed.

Do you see the current development of online learning as a positive thing for the future of liberals arts colleges?

Chopp: Yes. What we are already seeing is faculty teaching in new ways, and students learning in new ways. There are all sorts of collaborative partnerships.

Colleges are sharing courses with other schools around the world. It is transforming how we do what we do, but I don’t think that means that undergraduate liberal education is going away.

Not all students will flourish in the context of simply attending MOOCs. In fact, if 2013 was the year of the MOOCs, I think 2014 is the year of sobering reality.

Some of the famous professors who are teaching in MOOCs and some of the people who have built business enterprises with MOOCs are saying these courses will never completely replace conventional teaching.

Weiss: I would add that it isn’t about MOOCs per se. There is no question that MOOCs and other technologies will find their way onto our campuses.

The question is to what extent will they change or inflect the way colleges and universities do their work now. I think that will vary by institutional type.

Very large public universities will probably embrace MOOCs more than small liberal arts college do, but all these institutions, in the next 10 years, will transform themselves around the adaptation of technology because it is such a powerful tool for educational attainment.

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