Liberal Arts Colleges “Punch Above Their Weight”

Messiah

Messiah College

I do not teach at a liberal arts college.  Messiah College is a comprehensive college that bills itself as a “private Christian college of the liberal arts and applied arts and sciences.” Faculty in the liberal arts, and especially in the humanities, sometimes have to remind our colleagues that the liberal arts are part of our mission.  But I digress.

On the “Technology and Learning” blog at Inside Higher Education, Joshua Kim, the Director of Digital Learning Initiatives at the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning,” reminds us that liberal arts colleges “punch above their weight when it comes to creating ideas and nurturing idea creators.”

If Kim’s name sounds familiar to the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home it is because he is one of the many former history majors we have featured in our “So What Can You Do With a History Major” series.  You can read his entry here.

Here is a taste of Kim’s piece on the liberal arts:

…The question is not if a liberal arts college is the best place to learn how to think – and then to think really hard about big questions – but why this is so?

We need a theory of small colleges.  

After living and working at a small liberal arts college with big global ambitions for over a decade, I have a couple of hypotheses.  

My first hypothesis has to do with conversations. If you live and work at a small liberal arts college, you end up having lots of conversations with experts from many different areas of thought. On any given day you will run into life scientists and computer scientists, instructional designers and professors of English. Philosophers and librarians, chemists and historians. Where else in the world do so many people who know so much about so many different things interact with each other on a daily basis than on the campus of a small liberal arts school?

My second hypothesis has to do with culture. People who gravitate to small liberal arts schools value questions over answers. They prize evidence, flexibility, and nuance over certitude and appearance. Substance over flash. A supportive environment for the open exchange of information is essential for the development of new ideas. A suspicion of the conventional wisdom is necessary to advance how we think about an issue. A healthy liberal arts campus is a contentious place of ideas, and a nurturing place of people. The best colleges are living examples that debate and disagreement are necessary components of advancing knowledge, but that a conflict of ideas can occur within a common set of values and cultural norms.

A third reason (my third hypothesis) why small liberal arts colleges are disproportionate generators of ideas – and hence playgrounds for the intellectually curious – has to do with the interaction between teaching and research. Nowhere are these two activities as symbiotic and intertwined as at a small liberal arts college. The best schools invite students into the theories and methods of our academic disciplines at every stage of their education. Professors teach the knowledge that they are creating in real time, using the classroom as a laboratory to test out new ideas and to share new results.  There is a certain excitement that happens when a critical mass of people are all buzzing around thinking new thoughts, exploring new ideas. This can only happen when everyone in the community we call a college is an active participant in the work of discovery.  

Read the entire post here.

One thought on “Liberal Arts Colleges “Punch Above Their Weight”

  1. David Breneman did some of the best work on the place of liberal arts colleges in the higher education landscape (1990–Are We Losing Our Liberal Arts Colleges?). There has been quite a bit written about the role of the student affairs division in small colleges which also highlights how small colleges create a specific “environmental press” that encourages student engagement and results in greater learning. A couple of examples include Kuh, GD & McAleenan, AC (1986). Private Dreams, Shared Visions: Student Affairs Work in Small Colleges and the more recent Westfall, SB (ed) (Winter 2006) New Directions for Student Services, The Small College Dean. And the granddaddy of them all is, of course, Pascarella & Terenzini’s How College Affects Students which looks at the impact of institutional size on student success. Small colleges and student learning is one of my areas of research and experience in my student affairs career.

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