Why We Need the Liberal Arts


Clayton Spencer

Clayton Spencer, the president of Bates College in Lewistown, Maine, reminds her students about the meaning of the liberal arts in times like this.  (Thanks to Bates alum and The Way of Improvement Leads Home reader Amy Bass for bringing this 2017 convocation speech to my attention).

Here is a taste:

The Bates mission statement frames the project of education in a radical and distinctive way. We invoke the “emancipating potential of the liberal arts,” and we invite our students to engage “the transformative power of our differences, cultivating intellectual discovery and informed civic action.” These principles were revisited and restated by the Bates community in 2010, and I would suggest that they need to be brought to the surface with fierce attention in the fall of 2017.

We believe in truth. We believe that knowledge is hard won, and that meaning is a personal struggle that each of us tackles in our own way. We believe that learning is more powerful when it happens in community with the inspiration of dedicated teachers and scholars and the solidarity of friends and fellow travelers.

We understand that hard problems do not admit of glib or easy answers. Rather they are solved incrementally and over time, often with painstaking work that builds on the knowledge of previous generations and gains strength through the insights of contemporary colleagues. This is called expertise. It is developed in institutions like colleges and universities, and it is safeguarded by respect for standards of inquiry and expression. Expertise matters, because it brings the promise of making lives — and life on this planet — better.

We teach our students to reason from evidence. We believe that facts matter. A college campus is a culture that depends on persuasion and reason-giving, not on authority derived from power or position. We give reasons for believing that something is true, because we trust in the good faith and agency of others, including the agency to freely disagree. These principles make open and robust discourse on a college campus possible, they make democracy possible, and they make it possible for us to cultivate our common humanity.


Read the entire speech here.