The Liberal Arts in the 21st Century
by Jeff Abernathy, President of Alma College
published May 2, 2012, in The Huffington Post
For two centuries, liberal arts colleges across our nation have provided students with a life-changing education centered on the values that will sustain them for a lifetime. They have focused on the growth of the whole person and on the development of a whole life. It worked in the 1800s. It worked in the 1900s. But does it work in the 2000s?
Many are pessimistic. The naysayers point to a myriad of problems that needs new solutions. Our children’s test scores are falling behind other countries, they say. The global political climate is unsettled and violent. Our government lives beyond its means. Our schools are failing. America is falling behind. College is too expensive.
Indeed, we face problems. But that’s not new. We always, seemingly, stand at the brink of a precipice.
Those of us who trumpet the small college, liberal arts approach are quick to defend our values. We maintain that a liberal arts education is deeply rooted in helping to solve the practical problems of society. As we prepare students who have the breadth of training that a liberal education demands, we help them to discover how they will use that knowledge to serve, and to improve, society.
These core vitals, held dear for decades and centuries, are still vital. However, liberal arts colleges cannot be satisfied with simply being what they have been. I am suggesting that our greatest opportunity is to re-imagine what the liberal arts college can be for our society and for the world.
What must such a re-imagining entail? Among the things we must pursue:
- We must continue to champion “high impact practices” such as internships, independent study, community service, off-campus employment and study abroad experiences designed to deepen civic engagement.
- We must connect with the communities in which we live and be a resource to solving community challenges. We must lead the way in creating sustainable communities, respectful of the environment and connected to local tradesmen and businesses.
- We must recommit to “citizenship” as a foundation of the academy and model citizenship by addressing the real problems of our state, national and global communities.
- We must bring the world to our campuses and ensure that our students have opportunities to learn through their engagement with the world.
If liberal arts institutions are to achieve these goals, we will need to go about our work differently. We will, each of us, need to take on an entrepreneurial spirit that, for many, is not the hallmark of the academy. We must become institutions for a new century of challenges and opportunities, a dynamic model of the habits and practices upon which a sustainable and compassionate community depends. We have the opportunity to be the community that we are preparing our graduates to help create when they leave us.