The historian W.R. Connor has pointed out that the etymology of the word “liberal” in “liberal education” derives from a Greek word for free—a word the Athenians used specifically to distinguish free citizens from slaves. Connor proposes we define liberal arts as “the skills of freedom.”
I like this translation because it emphasizes that a liberal arts education began as a public good, and remains a public good today. It also points to the fact that a liberal education prepares students to manage their world and their lives, and not just their careers. Continue reading
While many of the current critiques of higher education are thoughtful and credible, I am deeply troubled that public confidence in the value of a liberal arts education has eroded at a time when what is found at these special places is so desperately needed by the nation—and the planet.
I, like my fellow presidents, know that there is no education better suited for the 21st century than that found in residential liberal arts college communities: education that teaches individuals to think critically, chase big questions, settle conflicts with civility and reason. Continue reading
At the College of the Holy Cross, we have a distinctive academic and religious mission as a Jesuit and Catholic college. How we appropriate and live that mission in contemporary culture is both an opportunity and a challenge for us, especially as the number of Jesuits living on our campus is diminishing. Further, while our commitment to be need blind and to meet full demonstrated need is an important manifestation of our Jesuit and Catholic mission to educate the under-served, this commitment makes significant claims on our resources.
When I think about the prospects and perils of a liberal arts education in our country today, I think of Charles Dickens’s famous opening to A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”
It is difficult to read the headlines of any newspaper, the prognostications of any commentator, or the pronouncement of any politician and not draw the conclusion that higher education (and liberal arts education in particular) is bound for perdition—in a crisis of historic proportions, on the brink of economic collapse. Continue reading
Uncertainty about the future can immobilize us, or it can challenge us. If small liberal arts colleges believe they can do business “the way we have always done it” we will be in for big surprises. We need to practice what we teach our students: Be nimble.
I believe a liberal arts education is the best preparation for being nimble, or being able to adjust to the challenges we face as individuals in our careers and lives, and for institutions that must adjust to the dramatically changing rules for higher education. Continue reading
It seems to me that the past two years’ discussions of liberal arts education on the precipice are subsiding. As study after study of what employers really want is published, it is clear that employers seek talent beyond a particular skill set. Instead, they report that they actually prefer someone who is well-educated.
The latest of these was the survey just released by Northeastern University revealing that the majority of respondents did, indeed, consider a well-rounded education superior to job-specific skills. Continue reading
Foremost on my mind is the national imperative that American higher education draw from the full American mosaic in order to effectively prepare the leaders of tomorrow.
Make no mistake, liberal arts education is the single finest form of cultivating emerging human talent and character that this world has ever known. While all liberal arts colleges must contend with economic pressures and the need to demonstrate our value, we are fortunate that the quality of education we offer is exactly what future leaders need.
The challenge that we have at liberal arts colleges is two-fold: first, to move over to the web and internet the part of education that simply transfers information; and, second, to make relationships the core of our education—the relationships that students have with faculty, that students have with coaches, residence hall advisors, and sponsors of clubs, and that students doing internships and service learning have with professionals in businesses, schools, and hospitals.
Two questions dominate my thinking in these days. First, how do we keep high-quality liberal arts education affordable and accessible to talented students in all sectors of our society? Second, how do we translate the long-term, qualitative, and societal value of a liberal arts education to a society that is currently and perhaps even understandably preoccupied with short-term, quantitative, and individualistic concerns? If we cannot resolve the second question, I suspect we will not be able to solve the first.
Our rapidly changing world urgently needs creative, disciplined, eloquent leaders with the courage, integrity, resilience, personal presence, and intellectual tools to tackle complex challenges in health care, education, sustainability, economic growth, and social justice.
At Davidson College, we are using new technologies both to expand our impact and to ensure that Davidson can lead in this new environment through four key strategies: 1) seeking out talented young people from around the country and world irrespective of their financial circumstances, enabling them to thrive at Davidson and beyond; 2) building a challenging curricula based on students doing original work, so that they graduate with a portfolio of work, rather than simply a transcript with grades; 3) offering students significant opportunities in emerging crucial fields, like computer science, global languages, computational biology, cognitive sciences, digital studies, and environmental studies; and 4) moving our students efficiently from our campus to meaningful work in the world.