Why We Need the Liberal Arts

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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.

How To Interview at a Teaching College

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A few years ago I wrote a couple of pieces at Inside Higher Ed on interviewing for college teaching jobs.  I wrote about interviewing at a teaching college here and interviewing at teaching a church-related teaching college here.

Today at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Kevin Gannon of Grand View University offers some good advice on applying for a job at small liberal arts college that emphasizes teaching over research.

Here is a taste of his piece:

I work at a small liberal-arts college — also known by our charming acronym, SLAC. Colleges like mine are teaching-centric (a 4-4 load), largely enrollment-dependent, and quite different from research universities when it comes to faculty hiring and advancement. That’s important because the non-elite, teaching-oriented colleges are where a lot of the academic jobs are. Yet far too many advice columns on the faculty career act as if search committees only operate in one way — the way they do at R-1 campuses. You’re told how to be successful in your “job talk” — you know, the hourlong session where you publicly discuss your scholarly work, research agenda, and (typically) how kickass of a book your dissertation is about to become. That (and not getting drunk at dinner with the search committee) is key, you are told.

But that isn’t key in the hiring process at teaching colleges.If you’re in a field — say, anything in the humanities — where there’s a daunting ratio of candidates to open positions, being strategic and intentional about the application materials you send to different types of institutions can make a real difference in how you fare. A happy exception to the overload of R1 advice is Karen Kelsky’s recent column on job-searching at a SLAC (and, for once, you should read the comments, too). It’s a good start and my goal here is to go further.

At SLACs, a teaching demonstration is at the heart of our campus interview process. I had heard nothing about that when I was a Ph.D. student entering the market myself, even though all of my interviews were at small liberal-arts institutions. I quickly discovered that the hiring landscape at these colleges was much different than the one I’d been prepared for. Ultimately, I was successful, but only by adjusting on the fly to a new set of strategies.

Read the rest here.

Liberal Arts Colleges “Punch Above Their Weight”

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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.

Deresiewicz: Select Private Colleges Have Become “Religious” Schools

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William Deresiewicz‘s recent article at The American Scholar is especially pertinent in light of what recently happened to Charles Murray at Middlebury College. Deresiewicz writes “political correctness and rational discourse are incompatible ideas.”

Here is a taste:

Selective private colleges have become religious schools. The religion in question is not Methodism or Catholicism but an extreme version of the belief system of the liberal elite: the liberal professional, managerial, and creative classes, which provide a large majority of students enrolled at such places and an even larger majority of faculty and administrators who work at them. To attend those institutions is to be socialized, and not infrequently, indoctrinated into that religion.

I should mention that when I was speaking about these issues last fall with a group of students at Whitman College, a selective school in Washington State, that idea, that elite private colleges are religious institutions, is the one that resonated with them most. I should also mention that I received an email recently from a student who had transferred from Oral Roberts, the evangelical Christian university in Tulsa, to Columbia, my alma mater. The latter, he found to his surprise, is also a religious school, only there, he said, the faith is the religion of success. The religion of success is not the same as political correctness, but as I will presently explain, the two go hand in hand.

What does it mean to say that these institutions are religious schools? First, that they possess a dogma, unwritten but understood by all: a set of “correct” opinions and beliefs, or at best, a narrow range within which disagreement is permitted. There is a right way to think and a right way to talk, and also a right set of things to think and talk about. Secularism is taken for granted. Environmentalism is a sacred cause. Issues of identity—principally the holy trinity of race, gender, and sexuality—occupy the center of concern. The presiding presence is Michel Foucault, with his theories of power, discourse, and the social construction of the self, who plays the same role on the left as Marx once did. The fundamental questions that a college education ought to raise—questions of individual and collective virtue, of what it means to be a good person and a good community—are understood to have been settled. The assumption, on elite college campuses, is that we are already in full possession of the moral truth. This is a religious attitude. It is certainly not a scholarly or intellectual attitude….

That, by the way, is why liberal students (and liberals in general) are so bad at defending their own positions. They never have to, so they never learn to. That is also why it tends to be so easy for conservatives to goad them into incoherent anger. Nothing makes you more enraged than an argument you cannot answer. But the reason to listen to people who disagree with you is not so you can learn to refute them. The reason is that you may be wrong. In fact, you are wrong: about some things and probably about a lot of things. There is zero percent chance that any one of us is 100 percent correct. That, in turn, is why freedom of expression includes the right to hear as well as speak, and why disinviting campus speakers abridges the speech rights of students as well as of the speakers themselves.

Read the entire piece here.  It is definitely worth your time.  At one point in the piece he challenges the notion of “civility” on college campuses, calling it a “management tool for nervous bureaucrats, a way of splitting every difference and pureeing them into a pablum of mush.”

As I read this I could not help but wonder if a similar kind of “religiosity” permeates evangelical or so-called “Christian” colleges.  A few additional thoughts:

  • For some Christian colleges the “religiosity” that Deresiewicz describes is defined as a commitment to a conservative political agenda that forbids any kind of dissent among its faculty and students.  Those with more moderate or progressive political viewpoints, articulated from within the Christian tradition, are ostracized.  Anyone who reads The Way of Improvement Leads Home blog knows that I have been very critical of this approach.
  • For other Christian colleges this “religiosity” is defined by a commitment to a progressive political agenda that is often articulated in terms of “following Jesus” or “fighting for social justice.”  Those who see liberal arts education as primarily the pursuit of an “examined life” or as a pursuit of “truth,” rather than as a means of primarily fighting for justice, are often viewed as outside the mainstream or perhaps even less Christian.
  • In both of the aforementioned models, liberal arts education is subordinated to either conservative politics or a progressive Christian mission to change the world.  While I hope that a Christian liberal arts education will challenge students to be politically active, change the world, and fight for justice, I don’t think that this is the way the questions raised by the liberal arts and the humanities–both in terms of the classroom and outside classroom (guest lecturers, etc…)–should be framed.  (This, by the way, is why I have been critical of both Howard Zinn and David Barton).  Back in the early 1990s I went to seminary. I could have chosen a path in the ministry, but I chose to pursue a life teaching history.  I see these things as two different callings.

Mark Cuban: Don’t Go to College to Study Business. Study the Humanities

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From Business Insider:

Billionaire investor Mark Cuban offered a perhaps bleak prediction on the future of jobs in an interview Friday with Bloomberg’s Cory Johnson at the NBA All-Star Technology Summit in New Orleans.

Discussing the swiftly evolving nature of jobs due to automation, he noted that across a broad array of industries, robots will replace human workers.

Prompted by Johnson, he then made a bold proclamation about the types of skills and majors that will dominate in his version of the future labor market.

Here’s an excerpt of their conversation (emphasis ours):

Johnson: So essentially what you’re making the case for is education and job training for grown ups.

Cuban: No, no. I think that won’t matter. What are you going to go back and learn to do?

Johnson: What it takes, right? Whether it’s finance, whether it’s software programming.

Cuban: No finance. That’s the easiest thing — you just take the data have it spit out whatever you need. I personally think there’s going to be a greater demand in 10 years for liberal arts majors than there were for programming majors and maybe even engineering, because when the data is all being spit out for you, options are being spit out for you, you need a different perspective in order to have a different view of the data. And so having someone who is more of a freer thinker.

Cuban’s forecast of the skills needed to succeed in the future echoes that of computer science and higher education experts who believe people with “soft skills,” like adaptability and communication, will have the advantage in an automated workforce.

Cuban highlighted English, philosophy, and foreign language majors as just some of the majors that will do well in the future job market.

Watch the entire interview here.

Cuban is reinforcing a narrative I and many other have been pushing for a long time.  We need the humanities more than ever in a constantly changing workplace. (Not to mention their contribution to our democracy).  Colleges and universities with traditional liberal arts programs that do not invest in their humanities-based missions are doing so at their own peril.

Having said that, I am becoming more and more convinced that not every 4-year college or university, even those who give lip-service to the liberal arts and the humanities, will be unable to commit to this kind mission and still keep the doors open.  Colleges in financial difficulties, or those who rely entirely on tuition dollars, or those with small endowments, cannot afford to take the long view in this way.  Instead, they must throw their money into professional programs just to stay alive.

Cuban takes the long view.  Liberal arts and the humanities are the future.  It think college administrators understand this, but there is nothing they can do about it.  Mission is sacrificed to market.  Give the students want they want, not what they, and all of us, need.

“Show me how to think and how to choose.”

delbancoThis quote comes from the 1850 diary of a student at Emory and Henry College in Virginia.  Andrew Delbanco writes about in his 2013 book College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be.  I highly recommend this book.

A few years ago, I came across a manuscript diary…from 1850–kept by a student at a small Methodist college, Emory and Henry, in southwest Virginia.  One spring evening, after attending a sermon by the college president that left him troubled and apprehensive, he made the following entry in his journal: “Oh that the Lord would show me how to think and how to choose.”  That sentence, poised somewhere between a wish and a plea, sounds archaic today.  For many if not most students, God is no longer the object of the plea; or if he is, they probably do not attend a college where everyone worships the same god in the same way.  Many American colleges began as denominational institutions; but today religion is so much a matter of private conscience, and the number of punishable infractions so small (even rules against the academic sin of plagiarism are only loosely enforced), that few college presidents would presume to intervene in the private lives of students for the purposes of doctrinal or moral correction.  The era of spiritual authority belonging to college is long gone.  And yet I have never encountered a better formulation–“show me how to think and how to choose”–of what a college should strive to be: an aid to reflection, a place and process whereby young people take stock of their talents and passions and begin to sort out their lives in a way that is true to themselves and responsible to others (pp.16-17).

Should Colleges Be Producing Citizens?

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Parmer Hall, Messiah College

An organization of conservative academics and intellectuals known as the National Association of Scholars (NAS) recently released a 525-page report titled “Making Citizens: How American Universities Teach Civics.”  It is a critique of what the NAS describes as the “New Civics.”  The report focuses on this approach to civic education at four western universities in the United States.

Here is a taste of the abstract:

A new movement in American higher education aims to transform the teaching of civics. This report is a study of what that movement is, where it came from, and why Americans should be concerned.

What we call the “New Civics” redefines civics as progressive political activism. Rooted in the radical program of the 1960s’ New Left, the New Civics presents itself as an up-to-date version of volunteerism and good works. Though camouflaged with soft rhetoric, the New Civics, properly understood, is an effort to repurpose higher education.

The New Civics seeks above all to make students into enthusiastic supporters of the New Left’s dream of “fundamentally transforming” America. The transformation includes de-carbonizing the economy, massively redistributing wealth, intensifying identity group grievance, curtailing the free market, expanding government bureaucracy, elevating international “norms” over American Constitutional law, and disparaging our common history and ideals. New Civics advocates argue among themselves which of these transformations should take precedence, but they agree that America must be transformed by “systemic change” from an unjust, oppressive society to a society that embodies social justice.

The New Civics hopes to accomplish this by teaching students that a good citizen is a radical activist, and it puts political activism at the center of everything that students do in college, including academic study, extra-curricular pursuits, and off-campus ventures.

New Civics builds on “service-learning,” which is an effort to divert students from the classroom to vocational training as community activists. By rebranding itself as “civic engagement,” service learning succeeded in capturing nearly all the funding that formerly supported the old civics. In practice this means that instead of teaching college students the foundations of law, liberty, and self-government, colleges teach students how to organize protests, occupy buildings, and stage demonstrations. These are indeed forms of “civic engagement,” but they are far from being a genuine substitute for learning how to be a full participant in our republic.

New Civics has still further ambitions. Its proponents want to build it into every college class regardless of subject. The effort continues without so far drawing much critical attention from the public. This report aims to change that.

Pretty standard conservative stuff.

After reading this report, literary scholar and public intellectual Stanley Fish turned to the pages of The Chronicle of Higher Education and published a piece titled “Citizen Formation Is Not Our Job.”  He has mixed feelings about what the NAS has produced.

Here is a taste of Fish’s piece:

...I have felt for some time that the integrity of academic work has been under pressure from forces that would politicize it, either from the outside in the form of external constituencies eager to have colleges and universities reflect their agendas, or from the inside in the form of student protests aimed at getting colleges and universities to toe their preferred ideological line. The NAS report stands squarely against the second form of politicization (as do I), but participates fully in the first. Consider the following key and representative sentence: “We view the liberal arts, properly understood, as fostering intellectual freedom, the search for truth, and the promotion of virtuous citizenship.” Fostering intellectual freedom? Yes! Search for truth? Yes! Promotion of virtuous citizenship? No! Promoting virtuous citizenship is no doubt a worthy goal, but it is not an academic goal, because, like the programs the report derides, it is a political goal.

A simple question makes my point. What is the content of “virtuous”? The answer will vary with the varying views of what obligations citizenship brings with it. For the authors of the NAS report, virtuous citizenship means love of country and “a commitment to our form of self-government.” For the faculty and students who practice civic engagement, virtuous citizenship means a radical questioning of our forms of government and a resolve to restructure them so that they reflect (insofar as possible) the ideal of social justice. This difference is obviously political and amounts to a quarrel between opposing views of what form of citizenship universities should foster. But because my position is that the university should not foster any form of citizenship — at least not as part of a design; the fostering might well occur as an unintended side-effect — I find both parties off base because they are in their different ways deforming the educational enterprise by bending it to a partisan purpose.

A director of a service-learning institute quoted in the report declares that “The crux of the debate is whether education should provide students with the skills and knowledge base necessary to fit into the existing social structure or prepare them to engage in social transformation.” The right answer is “neither of the above.” Neither social transformation nor unabashed patriotism is an appropriate goal of the classroom experience. The report declares that the proponents of civic engagement “cannot distinguish education from progressive activism.” The NAS cannot distinguish education from conservative activism…

I agree that colleges and universities should teach civic literacy rather than civic advocacy. I agree that while volunteerism is in general a good thing, it is not an academic good thing and those who take it up should not receive academic credit for doing so. I agree that students “should possess a basic understanding of their government” and that colleges and universities should play a part in providing that understanding. I don’t agree that the content of that understanding should be dictated by government officials, and I find it odd that an essay claiming to defend traditional liberal education against the incursion of politics ends by inviting the politicians in. One might say that the cure is worse than the disease, but that would not be quite right: The cure is the disease.

Those familiar with Fish know that he has been making this argument for a long time.  It is best formulated in his book Save the World on Your Own Time Earlier this month at the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association he made a similar case.

I largely agree with Fish’s critique of the so-called “New Civics” and the NAS report. As I have written before, my understanding of liberal arts education is probably best captured in this conversation between Robert George and Cornell West.  The purpose of liberal arts education, in other words, is the pursuit of truth and the “examined life.”

My views here have been no doubt shaped by fifteen years of working as a bit of an outsider at a college that privileges a Christian view of the “New Civics” rooted in historic Anabaptism. Anabaptists are very good at service and justice, but they have never been on the front lines of cultivating intellectual life. (There are, of course, exceptions.  I know this because I work with some of those exceptions).

Moreover, the college where I teach has a lot of students who have been raised in evangelicalism.  Many of these students have already learned some basic things about how to be activists.  They have participated in youth group service projects and mission trips and they want to “change the world.”  But because of what historian Mark Noll has described as the “Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” they have not learned how to cultivate an “examined life.”  Few of them see learning for learning’s sake–the worship of God with their minds–as a legitimate part of their life of faith.  It is my job to expose them to this way of encountering God and suggest to them that it is a vital part of their responsibility as a Christian.  The Anabaptist and evangelical ethos of my college does not make this easy.  (I discussed this in a chapter I wrote for this book).

But where I differ with Fish (and I am not even sure we differ) is best captured in a few lines from his Chronicle piece.

Fish says: “my position is that the university should not foster any form of citizenship — at least not as part of a design; the fostering might well occur as an unintended side-effect.”  I would rephrase Fish’s sentence this way: “my position is that the university should not foster any form of citizenship–at least not as part of a design, but citizenship should result as an intended side-effect.”  (I should add that I think such an approach fits squarely within my understanding of the Christian liberal arts, but that discussion will have to wait for another post).

Fish also says: “I agree that colleges and universities should teach civic literacy rather than civic advocacy.”  I would only add that civic literacy–and this includes historical thinking, not just facts–should result in some form of civic responsibility.

As I argued in my 2013  book Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Pastthe study of history (and all of the humanities) teaches us empathy, humility, and even love. It relieves us of our narcissism.  It teaches us hospitality.   It challenges us to pursue truth. These kinds of virtues go beyond mere civic literacy and, when applied in an individual life or community, extend well beyond any particular political or social agenda.

Liberal Arts Graduates are Civic-Minded and Economically Secure Leaders

laThis is according to a recent study comparing liberal arts college graduates with those who graduated from other kinds of colleges and universities.  Here is a taste of Scot Jaschik’s piece at Insider Higher Ed:

What Detweiler found was that graduates who reported key college experiences associated with liberal arts colleges had greater odds of measures of life success associated with the goals of liberal arts colleges. Here are some of the findings:

  • Graduates who reported that in college they talked with faculty members about nonacademic and academic subjects outside class were 25 to 45 percent more likely (depending on other factors) to have become leaders in their localities or professions. Those who reported discussions on issues such as peace, justice and human rights with fellow students outside class were 27 to 52 percent more likely to become leaders.
  • Graduates who reported that students took a large role in class discussions were 27 to 38 percent more likely to report characteristics of lifelong learners than others were. Students who reported most of their classwork was professionally oriented were less likely to become lifelong learners.
  • Graduates who reported that as students they discussed philosophical or ethical issues in many classes, and who took many classes in the humanities, were 25 to 60 percent more likely than others to have characteristics of altruists (volunteer involvement, giving to nonprofit groups, etc.).
  • Graduates who reported that as students most professors knew their first names, and that they talked regularly with faculty members about academic subjects outside class, were 32 to 90 percent more likely to report that they felt personally fulfilled in their lives. Those who reported that professors encouraged them to examine the strengths and weaknesses of one’s views, and whose course work emphasized questions on which there is not necessarily a correct answer, were 25 to 40 percent more likely to report that they felt personally fulfilled.

But What About Money?

Detweiler saved for last the characteristic that gets so much attention these days, and that liberal arts college leaders fear hurts them: money. He noted that his research does back the common belief that liberal arts graduates earn less than others, but only for the first few years after graduation.

He said that his study shows a high relationship between a broad undergraduate education and financial success. Those who take more than half of their course work in subjects unrelated to their majors (a characteristics of liberal arts colleges but not professionally oriented colleges) are 31 to 72 percent more likely than others to have higher-level positions and to be earning more than $100,000 than are others.

Detweiler said that his study not only suggests that the liberal arts college experience prepares students for a life well lived, but for a life of financial success.

Read the entire piece here.

Yes, A Liberal Arts Degree is “Worth It”

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Today I met with a group of prospective students who are interested in studying history at Messiah College.  Whenever I do these presentations, especially in these economic times, I need to remind students and their parents that an investment in a liberal arts education is “worth it.”

I am glad that people like John Macais, a philosophy professor at St. Gregory’s University of Shawnee, Oklahoma, have my back.  Macais does not make an economic argument for a liberal arts education (i.e., you can get a job with this degree).  Instead, he makes the case that a liberal arts education is “worth it” because it can make you a more virtuous person.  This is an argument that should have a special appeal to students interested in pursuing study at a church-related school.

Here is a taste of his recent piece “Why a Liberal Arts Degree is Worth It” at Aleteia:

But the liberal arts in fact have plenty to offer us — in this Jubilee Year, I would like to suggest that Liberal Arts are an important tool precisely for cultivating the virtue of mercy.

How so? Well, mercy, as Aquinas explains, is the virtue whereby we are able to recognize another’s pain and feel it as our own. He calls it a “heartfelt sympathy for another’s distress, impelling us to succor him if we can.”

Alasdair MacIntyre, in his book Dependent Rational Animals, echoes Aquinas in explaining that “to understand another’s distress as our own is to recognize that other as neighbor.” [Emphasis mine] So if I am a merciful man, then I see each individual as my neighbor, deserving of sympathy when suffering, regardless of his relationship to me. This is precisely the lesson of the Good Samaritan of the Gospel.

Being an English major or a music major can contribute mightily to these facets of mercy as explained by Aquinas and MacIntyre. How? Well, the liberal arts are those branches of study and research ordered, not to some practical end, e.g. healing a broken bone or building computers, but to the attainment of truth for its own sake. These studies are, quite strictly, “pointless.” They seek to discover the truth about reality simply to know it, because knowing the truth is what – beyond the balanced ledgers and the innovative codes written for our technologies — we are ultimately made for.

In the liberal arts, a central question concerns the nature of the human person. What is a human being, what are its powers, and what separates human persons from animals and plants? Philosophy and theology take a more universal scope, while literature, poetry, and the arts seek to concretize these systematic views of the human person. These arts, when correctly pursued, allow us to recognize the common nature that each and every human being possesses. Regardless of race, sex, religion, or economic status, all human beings seek after the same ultimate good.

Therefore, liberal arts help us recognize our shared humanity. They help us to understand who we are as persons, and to detect the things that cause our nature distress. They help us to take it a step further, not merely recognizing the suffering of others, but also understanding that the suffering person in fact has a relationship to us, regardless of who he is. The arts burnish empathy, which in turn drives action to improve our lives and the lives of those around us.

Read the entire piece here.

Did the Idea of “Knowledge for Knowledge’s Sake” Die With the Internet?

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This article recently came across one of my social media feeds.  It is written by Byron L. Grigsby, the president of Moravian College, an excellent liberal arts college in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Grigsby writes:

Vocation. This is a word with deep and important significance. Liberal Arts. This is an ideal of education with an equally deep set of meanings. Liberal arts colleges already do a great job developing a diverse group of socially responsible, critical thinkers, but they must start guiding students to their true vocation. For liberal arts colleges, the idea of knowledge for knowledge sake can no longer be your primary focus. That idea died with the onset of the Internet.

I don’t mean vocation in the way it is used today, a trade, but rather by its original meaning, “to find one’s calling.” So, how is this achieved while staying true to the foundations of a liberal arts education?

The answer is deceptively simple; liberal arts institutions can no longer stand pat with traditional models alone. They must start to embrace career exploration, technology, and professional programs.

Read the entire piece at a website called University Business.

I need to begin my analysis of this article with a caveat.  I am not opposed to helping liberal arts students think about what they can do with their liberal arts degrees.  Anyone who reads The Way of Improvement Leads Home knows that I have been committed to these kinds of efforts.  I devoted a whole chapter in my book Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past to career options for history students and I have devoted extensive time at this blog to my “So What CAN You Do With a History Major?” series.

But I was troubled by the way Grigsby framed his piece, particularly this sentence: “For liberal arts colleges, the idea of knowledge for knowledge sake can no longer be your primary focus. That idea died with the onset of the Internet.”

If I read him correctly, Grigsby seems to think that a liberal arts education is simply the accumulation of knowledge–information that can easily be found online through a simple Google search.  This is the equivalent of the idea that the study of history is simply the memorization of facts.  Frankly, I am surprised that Grigsby would say such a thing. His bio suggests that he is a humanities person–a scholar of early modern British literature.

By making the leap directly from Internet knowledge to career development, Grigsby misses what is perhaps the most important contribution that liberal arts colleges can make to democratic life–training in the ability to think critically about the information found on the Internet.

I thought about Grigsby’s piece as I read Sam Wineburg‘s article “Why Historical Thinking is Not About History.”  Many of you know Wineburg.  He teaches history teachers how to think historically from his post at Stanford University. He directs the Stanford History Education Group.  He has written several books including one my personal favorites, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts.  His appearance on The Way of Improvement Leads Home podcast is our most popular episode (#4).

In his latest article, which is adopted from his keynote address at the 2015 meeting of the American Association for State and Local History, Wineburg approaches our information-saturated way of life from a different perspective than Grigsby.

He writes:

Think back to claims that our president was born in Kenya. This was a claim embraced by many prominent people, including a current Republican candidate for president. And there on YouTube was an actual tape, a tape of Sarah Obama, the president’s grandmother, being interviewed by an American cleric about the circumstances of our president’s birth.

So I wanted to do an experiment with the generation often referred to as digital natives. I was asked to give a talk at a highly regarded independent school. The administration had assembled their sophomore and junior classes, over 100 students. I asked these kids how many of them had heard that President Obama had been born in Kenya. Sophisticated and well-healed, they looked at me as if I were from outer space.

But then, knowing teenagers as I do, I appealed to their bravado. “I assume,” I said, “that if you are so certain, you all must have examined the evidence. I assume all of you have heard the tape of Sarah Obama, the president’s paternal grandmother, talking about being ‘present’ at her grandson’s birth. Just so I can be sure, please raise your hand if you’ve listened to this tape.” No hands went in the air. “Soooooo,” I taunted them, “you’re judging a claim without looking at the evidence?” And then—those of you who work with teenagers will recognize this move—I asked them, “Are you open-minded or closed?” I’ve yet to meet a teenager who admits to close-mindedness.

I played the tape. Sarah Obama, a woman who had never left Kenya, claimed that she was “present” at her grandson’s birth. Someone’s a liar. Either an 86-year-old woman or the President of the United States. Now, with a little bit of nudging, students started to motivate some questions. Had the tape been doctored? No, it had been examined forensically. It was authentic. What about the material that comes before and after the part I played–a lovely question, very pertinent to historical thinking. Another wanted to know if the translation into English was correct, an astute question because Sarah Obama was speaking Swahili, not her native language. What happens to this word “present” as it moves from Luo, Sarah Obama’s native language, to her broken Swahili and then into English? Does it mean she was physically present? Or, that she merely heard of her grandson’s birth?

“What else would we want to know about the tape?” I pressed on. But it seemed that I had exhausted the bank of student questions. Despite the fact that many of these digital natives were headed to top colleges, they were still babes in the woods when it came to asking rudimentary questions of historical thinking: Who authored this tape, how did it come to be? Who was this Bishop Ron McCrae, the head of the Anabaptist Church of North America, the man heard speaking to Sarah Obama’s interpreter? How would we find out? Such questions-the A’s, B’s, and C’s of historical thinking— were anything but intuitive to this group of bright teenagers.

Let me suggest, then, that it is one thing to be a digital native and quite another to be digitally intelligent. Long before the Internet, Thomas Jefferson argued for the wisdom of the yeoman farmer, a person who would think, discern, and come to reasoned conclusions in the face of conflicting information. Today, when practically everything has changed about how we get our information, what does informed citizenship mean? 

This what a liberal arts education should be doing–teaching students how to think and evaluate evidence so that they can be functioning members of a democratic society.  This is what historians do for a living.  Yes, vocation is important. Yes, careers are important. But the notion that liberal arts colleges should focus on these things because all the information we need can be found on the Internet just seems naive and completely out of touch.

Wineburg concludes:

Back in the analog stone-age we could rely on factchecked newspapers to stay well-informed. Watching the news at night, we could rely on the major outlets and their anchors to save us from error. Peter Jennings. Tom Brokaw. Brian Williams. (Okay, maybe not Brian Williams.)

What once fell on the shoulders of editors, fact-checkers, and subject matter experts now falls on the shoulders of each and every one of us. But there’s a problem with this new reality. As the journalist John H. McManus reminds us, in a democracy the ill-informed hold just as much power in the ballot box as the well-informed. The future of the republic hangs in the balance.

Reliable information is to civic intelligence what clean air and clean water are to public health. Long before the Internet, long before blogs, before Instagram, before Twitter and Yik Yak, James Madison understood what was at stake when people cannot tell the difference between credible information and shameless bluff. “A popular government,” Madison wrote, “ without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

Read Wineburg’s entire piece here.

How Do Christian Colleges Serve the Church?

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In my recent piece on Donald Trump, Christian colleges, and the humanities and liberal arts I wrote:

Evangelical churches and their pastors are also to blame. How many evangelical churches have created spaces where conversations can take place about how to apply the Christian faith to culture, politics, art, nature, or our understanding of the past and its relationship to the present?

I am not saying these topics need to be addressed during Sunday morning services. This time and space needs to be reserved for Word and sacrament. But certainly some of our megachurches could make room for this kind of training.

Much of my analysis in this excerpt and elsewhere in the piece comes from my book Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past (Baker Academic, 2013). I like to think that there is a lot in this book that applies not only to the discipline of history, but to the humanities broadly.

All this week, Chris Gehrz of the Pietist Schoolman has also been wrestling with these issues.  In his latest post, he writes about the relationship between Christian colleges and churches.  Here is a taste:

Now, should we be preparing students for meaningful work that meets the needs of others? Of course. (I’d argue that history, like the other humanities, does this quite well.) Is it okay for Christian colleges to have business programs? Sure, though they should be embedded in a well-rounded arts and sciences curriculum and emphasize character formation as much as professional training. (That’s why I respect our business department.) Should our programs be responsive to economic change? Yes, so long as institutional leaders make the hard choices necessary to sustain that missional core of disciplines without which a liberal arts college ceases to be a liberal arts college.

But no Christian college ought primarily to serve the needs of a market economy. Nor to baptize capitalism (or any other ideology).

Not just the humanities or the general education curriculum, but every professional program — including those in marketing, finance, entrepreneurship, organizational leadership, etc. — ought to prepare students to identify, question, and, if necessary, challenge the values, assumptions, practices, and structures of the systems in which they will participate — even as they continue to serve their neighbors through such participation.

And he concludes:

I would like our students to come out of a Christian college ready to model what the humanities mean in the mission, ministry, and community of the church. I’m not sure that’s happening right now. Perhaps — by discussion and assignment design or by encouraging internships in churches or faith-based organizations, for example — I need to prepare them more explicitly to translate their knowledge and skills in the context of a small group, congregation, denomination, parachurch ministry, etc.

Read Chris’s entire post here.

Why Liberal Arts Majors Are Our Best Hope

MuhlenbergThis post at Education Drive comes from John I. Williams Jr., the President of Muhlenberg College, a top-rated liberal arts college in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

Here is a taste:

This year’s World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, discussed the top ten skills that will be needed for careers in 2020:

  1. Complex problem solving
  2. Critical thinking
  3. Creativity
  4. People management
  5. Coordinating with others
  6. Emotional intelligence
  7. Judgment and decision making
  8. Service orientation
  9. Negotiation
  10. Cognitive flexibility

The list is remarkable, both for what it includes and for what it doesn’t; and for the fact that it is as timeless as it is forward-looking. For our purposes, it serves as a useful gauge for the value of the education our students receive at highly-selective liberal arts colleges.  

As I reflect upon the list, I realize graduates of top liberal arts colleges will smile as they read it, reminded that their education focuses on skills that will be valuable across a lifetime. The record of how well liberal arts colleges have helped students achieve their career ambitions is a strong one. For example, alumni of liberal arts colleges are over-represented among leaders of Fortune 500 companies. In 2010, the late Steve Jobs pointed out how valuable a liberal arts education is, even at tech companies. “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough,” he said. “It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing.”

Going forward, college graduates may work for nine or more organizations over the course of their careers. They will almost certainly need to engage with co-workers living in countries all over the world. They will manage products and processes invented long after they graduate. For example, current first year students were born into a world without Google. In just 18 years, Google – or, if you like, Alphabet – has grown from a startup to the world’s most-valued company. Now, in just a few years, these same students will emerge from college into a world that promises self-driving cars, autonomous drone-delivered packages and massive databases in which one’s every taste and choice is analyzed in order to maximize profit.  

Yet, for all this techno-wizardry, the critical skills on WEF’s list for careers in 2020 resemble closely those that have defined the leaders who have emerged from top liberal arts colleges for decades. These colleges have structured their academic curricula and residential life programs in ways proven over time to produce graduates who excel in all of these skills. Specifically, regardless of major, liberal arts graduates tend, to an extent greater than graduates of other programs, to demonstrate the following skills:

  • Effective thinking, writing and speaking skills
  • Competency in writing clear and cogent expository prose
  • Basic skills of language acquisition and usage
  • The ability to understand and utilize mathematical and/or logical relationships, to analyze data, to construct and assess arguments and to make sound judgments
  • The technical skills, problem-solving ability, judgment and courage necessary to create new work in the visual, performing and literary arts, together with the knowledge of the theory, history and social context of artistic practice
  • The ability to interpret and evaluate issues of human concern, experience and expression by means of analysis, critical reasoning and historical reflection
  • Understanding of human activity and world views across time, geography and cultures
  • Facility with biological, computational, mathematical and physical theories and paradigms, using quantitative and scientific problem solving skills to investigate natural phenomena
  • Understanding of how modern institutional structures and social, political, economic and cultural practices shape and are shaped by individual choices, group behavior, and public policies, developing an understanding of the operations of power and ideology across social contexts, relationships and practices
  • Understanding of human difference and the intellectual and civic skills required for participation in an increasingly diverse and interconnected world

Read the entire post here.

 

Sending the Right Message to Incoming Freshmen: The Gettysburg College "First-Year Walk"

It is freshman orientation time at colleges and universities across the country.  Most schools have become very good at planning events and information sessions for first-year students.  Some colleges have games and picnics.  Other schools send freshmen into the streets to serve others.
But few of these freshman orientation traditions beat the Gettysburg College “First-Year Walk.” Students walk from the campus through the streets of the historic town of Gettysburg. Along the way they learn about the three-day battle that took place there in July 1863.  The walk ends at the Gettysburg cemetery where Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is read at the spot where it was original delivered on November 19, 1863.
Wow!  
What impresses me the most about the “First-Year Walk” is the message that it is sending to incoming students.  In an age in which so may colleges and universities are trying to ride the STEM wave, and humanistic learning is under attack in the academy, the good folks at Gettysburg are letting its freshman class know right from the beginning that history, ideas, memory, place, speech, and political philosophy matter and will be an important part, if not the defining part, of their four-year college career.
Here is a brief video of the 2015 “First Year Walk.”  I was also pleased to see that my friend Jill Ogline Titus was picked to give this year’s keynote presentation.  Jill is the Associate Director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg and her husband Sean has done some adjunct work in the Messiah College History Department.

In Praise of the Residential Liberal Arts College

As many of you know, I teach at a residential liberal arts college. 

Actually, Messiah College is not an official liberal arts college according to the Carnegie Classifications.  It is a regional comprehensive college with liberal arts and professional programs.  But it is highly residential.

Over at the Huffington Post “College” page, L. Jay Lemons, the president of Susquehanna University, another Pennsylvania school with a strong residential liberal arts emphasis, describes the beneifts of this type of college experience.  His piece centers around the college experience of his daughter.

Here is a taste:

During her first week on campus, by design Maggie and her classmates were all in the company of their academic advisors three times. These advisors are full-time faculty members. They discussed what classes to take during their first semester, adjusting to college life including being homesick, and how to become involved in campus life. The intention was clear that relationships between faculty members and students are central, essential and expected.

During a visit to Maggie in mid-October, we shared a meal with some friends and one of them asked her if she had a favorite class. She responded immediately that her interdisciplinary seminar was her favorite. She was finding the course material on early Christianity and Islam fascinating, and Maggie went on to say she found her professor inspiring. That is what every parent wants to hear.

Later that Saturday as we walked across the campus, we encountered the professor who was walking his dog and talking on his cell phone. He ended the call so as to have an opportunity to be introduced to us and I shared with him what Maggie said. He replied that Maggie and her classmates were inspiring him. The fact that he knew her name, was invested fully in her learning and was passionate about teaching was truly meaningful to me both as a dad and as a committed educator.

While I could provide other examples, let me share one final experience of what is different about residential liberal arts colleges. Maggie wanted to come home to Pennsylvania for her birthday weekend, which coincided with fall break. This necessitated taking a shuttle to LAX for a red-eye flight and meant she would miss the last half hour of her last class of the week. When she went to discuss this with the professor, she received an unexpected response, “Maggie, I want you to fully participate in the whole class.” How surprised was she when the full professor who holds an endowed chair said, “I will take you to the airport myself.” Wow! For parents, it does not get any better than that.

What Do These College and Universities Have in Common?

Covered bridge on campus of Messiah College
  • Kennesaw State University
  • Messiah College
  • Colorado College
  • Providence College
  • Penn State University-Kensington
  • Macalaster College
  • University of Maryland-Baltimore County
  • Willamette University

Nearly everyone who made it into this year’s Junto March Madness Tournament teaches at a research university.  (Although this does not necessarily mean that they were at a research university when they published their books).  The non-research schools that had a March Madness participant are listed above.

Only Seth Cotlar of Willamette University remains after the first round.

For what it’s worth…