In my 14-year tenure as president I have often been asked to define and defend the notion of a "useful" liberal arts education. The general public has difficulty associating the liberal arts with anything useful. That obstacle prompts them to dismiss liberal arts colleges as repositories of graduates with majors such as philosophy, history, anthropology and American studies who cannot get jobs. The thought that these same colleges also have majors such as biology, chemistry, physics and economics is totally missed.
The public is not to blame. American higher education never really experienced the American Revolution. While we threw away the oppressive dictates of monarchy, we never threw off the privileged notion of an English upper class liberal education that was literally defined as being only for those with sufficient wealth to do nothing professionally but dabble in learning. We remained enthralled by the notion of learning for learning’s sake and despite our emerging pragmatic nature, wanted our education to remain sublime and removed from the business of life.
There were prominent founders of the nation who argued for a new kind of liberal education for a new kind of nation. Thomas Jefferson urged a "practical education" for his University of Virginia. And Benjamin Rush, the founder of Dickinson College, decried the unwillingness of Americans to reform education after the Revolution:
It is equally a matter of regret, that no accommodation has been made in the system of education in our seminaries [colleges] to the new form of our government and the many national duties, and objects of knowledge, that have been imposed upon us by the American Revolution. Instead of instructing our sons in the Arts most essential to their existence, and in the means of acquiring that kind of knowledge which is connected to the time, the country, and the government in which they live, they are compelled to spend [time] learning two languages which no longer exist, and are rarely spoken, which have ceased to be the vehicles of Science and literature, and which contain no knowledge but what is to be met with in a more improved and perfect state in modern languages. We have rejected hereditary power in the governments of our country. But we continue the willing subjects of a system of education imposed upon us by our ancestors in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Had agriculture, mechanics, astronomy, navigation and medicine been equally stationary, how different from the present would have been the condition of mankind!
But these singular calls for a more pragmatic education in America to match a new form of government went largely unheeded. Rush’s founding of Dickinson is particularly illustrative. In his 1785 "Plan of Education" he called for a "useful liberal education." The curriculum was to be absent instruction in the writing and speaking of Greek and Latin, but rich in instruction of German, French, Spanish and even Native American languages as those would be highly useful to Americans striving to establish a native economy that would grow as it interacted linguistically with trading nations throughout the world and in the United States. Democracy was to be established through commerce informed by useful liberal education. Liberal education, commerce and democracy were interdependent. The Dickinson course of study was also to include chemistry as Rush thought this subject held the greatest number of connections to emerging knowledge useful to the nation.
The first president of the college and Rush’s fellow trustees ignored his plan. They recommitted to what Rush once called "the monkish" course of study, unchanged for centuries.
Latin and Greek were taught and a chemistry professor was not hired. Additionally, the college refused to hire a German professor. Rush was so angry that he founded nearby what was called Franklin College (today Franklin and Marshall College). It wasn’t until 1999 that Rush’s notion of a "useful" liberal education was reintroduced and embraced explicitly as part of a revised mission statement some 216 years after it was introduced.
Unfortunately for those in America today who wish to argue the usefulness, and thus the worthiness, of a liberal arts education, the founding fathers were not explicit. We know that a liberal education was to yield informed citizens who could build and protect the new government. We know that certain courses were to be taken out and others inserted — those that related more to emerging and immediately explicable knowledge, expanded the appreciation of democracy and created new knowledge and wealth that would materially power the nation’s development. A useful liberal arts education was essentially entrepreneurial. But for all the novelty and potent force in this "disruptive technology" in American higher education introduced by the founding fathers, we know little about how a liberal arts education actually becomes useful — that is, how the study of the liberal arts converts to material effect in the wider world.
Much is at stake to define explicitly and to reassert the usefulness of a distinctively American liberal arts education. The liberal arts are under assault by those who, under the mantle of affordability and efficiency, would reject it for the immediate, but often temporary, benefit of higher education defined as job training. My own experience offers a definition for the 21st century, in fact, for any century, where economic uncertainty prevails. I was a German and philosophy double major. At first glance, what could be more useless? And yet, my professional life has proven such a conclusion wrong.
I have been — sometimes simultaneously — a military officer, a pre-collegiate teacher, administrator and coach. I founded an athletic team, developed a major center at a prestigious research university, acted as a senior consultant to the U.S. Department of State with diplomatic status, served as a corporate officer at two publicly traded companies and now serve as president of Dickinson College. For none of these careers did I ever study formally or take a class.
I gained competency through independent reading, experience and observation. I appreciated that the breadth of knowledge and the depth of cognitive skill that my undergraduate courses in social science, political science, art and science prepared me for any field of professional pursuit. I was prepared for professional chance. I knew how to ask the right questions, how to gather information, how to make informed decisions, how to see connections among disparate areas of knowledge, how to see what others might miss, how to learn quickly the basics of a profession, how to discern pertinent information from that which is false or misleading, how to judge good, helpful people from those who wish you ill. All of this I gathered in a useful liberal education — in and out of the classroom — and in an intense residential life where experimentation with citizenship and social responsibility were guiding principles.
There were no formal, discrete courses to learn these habits of mind and action — no courses devoted to brain exercises, critical-thinking skills, leadership and citizenship; rather, professors and staff were united in all interactions to impress upon students day after day, year after year a liberal arts learning environment that was intellectually rigorous and defining. This was contextual learning at its fullest deployment. We absorbed and gradually displayed ultimately useful knowledge and skill not in a studied manner, but discretely and naturally. Time after time in my various careers, I applied these liberal arts skills to solve materially wider-world problems. And most important, except for my military service and my college presidency, none of my jobs existed before I assumed them. My useful education has enabled me to maximize opportunity within highly fluid and changing employment rhythms. As I now face another job transition in my life, I go forward with confidence that something appropriate will develop. I have no concrete plans and I like it that way. I know I am prepared on the basis of my liberal arts education to maximize chance. Something will develop. Something that probably doesn’t yet exist.
I am not alone in my appreciation of the liberal arts. Those of privilege have appreciated liberal education historically. It has contributed to their access and hold on power and influence. Their sons and daughters, generation after generation, have attended liberal arts institutions without hesitation. There is no job training in their educational landscape. It would be tragic if all the new and previously underserved populations now having access to higher education missed the opportunity for their turn at leadership and influence simply because of the outspoken — arguably purposeful — dismissal of the liberal arts as "useless," often by those who received a liberal arts education themselves and intend nothing less for their own children.
William G. Durden is president of Dickinson College.
"I know my time is short," G. tells me, "and I want to pack as much thinking as possible into what’s left."
It's the last night of class in the last course these students can take with me. A mix of nostalgia, excitement and exhaustion is in the air. We are saying goodbye with presentations and food, quick hugs and promises to keep in touch. Against all odds (some acknowledge with stunned expressions), this class has not been a mere deposit in the bank vault of education. We have changed each other.
G. is not dying, just graduating. But tonight feels like the death of ideas. All our fellow thinkers and talkers and dreamers are walking out the door. There’s no structure left to reel them back tomorrow, next week, next year. Our community has dispersed (something we’ve talked about this semester — the virtual nature of community) and the finale, as always, has a melancholy feel.
For the past several weeks, we have collaborated to create what Hemingway might call a "clean, well-lighted place" to question our own practices. Now, the lights are going out throughout the building and, in many ways, throughout the world. Slashed budgets, job cuts, strange politics, war, discrimination, willful misunderstanding, despair. And here we sit, asking, "How is identity formed? What is the nature of community? Who is the oft-cited 'they'?"
After 16 weeks of intellectual abandon, G. and I both know that the space to come and talk about these things is narrowing to a pinpoint of light.
And so he stays to talk after everyone has left, a habit we’ve fallen into these past few months, unusual tonight only because it’s the time most of us — students as well as teachers — are coiled tight and ready to bolt at the precise moment when break begins. It's the latest in a series of late-night concept pitches and strategy sessions about how he can articulate his thoughts without stifling them.
Much later, as I’m driving home, I will think of all the things, trite and otherwise, I should have said. This is not the end; it's a transition. You can never really lose a mind. The universe would not be so cruel to limit thought to a mere 16 weeks. You are leaving the institutionalization of critical thought. Now, you will have to create your own clean, well-lighted place in the face of what can seem like a very dark world. From here on, you have to make it happen.
But for now, we talk as if G.'s interpretation is truly our plight, the only reasonable conclusion given our experience. We discuss biology and culture and personal choice, wrong-headed policies, the future of education, his envisioned place in the corporate world. We make cross-generational references to popular films. We finish each other’s sentences.
"The really exciting thing about J.’s work is—"
"--everything we’ve been talking about is only 5 percent of the potentiality--"
"--even if the theory is ultimately proven false—"
"—it opens up so much—"
Which, we agree, is both terrifying and exhilarating.
G. thinks at warp speed, a far greater velocity than the everyday world requires or supports. A simple assignment turns into a 50-page thesis. Every sentence that comes out of his mouth or pen has several disclaimers, qualifiers, and alternate interpretations lurking behind it. If he tries to follow our mandates to "focus" and “frame,” his work becomes a strangely truncated outline with key connections missing. When everything seems important, editing is an arbitrary act. What to cut? How to choose? In a world full of meaning, which vital thing will you omit?
He's been medicated, counseled, mentored, and rewarded for this. But he remains the passionate explorer. Once an idea grabs him, he can’t seem to edit out intersecting issues. He experiences everything at once. Nothing is backdrop; it’s all center stage. He wants to explain totality. Anything less is a cheat.
"You’ve got to go to grad school," I tell him. We laugh.
We are suddenly aware of a peculiar silence. The building has taken on that hushed waiting that all public spaces get after hours. We can hear little pings and creaks in the walls and air ducts all around us, no longer masked by the rush of humanity through the rooms and halls. It’s long after 10:00 p.m. The security guard rattles the main doors, checks the side entrance. We are about to be "secured," and we decide that we don’t want to be the ones to discover whether exiting after lockdown sets off the alarms.
Backpacks and briefcases gathered, keys jangling as I shut down the computer and enter the security code, we walk, still talking, through the halls and out into the deserted parking lot. My cheap, reliable car sits not far away, in a little pool of streetlight, and we head toward it. As I unlock my door, I glance around the empty lot.
"Where’d you park?" I say, expecting to see his car lurking in the shadows nearby.
He flings one hand toward the deep-dark at the far end of the lot. "Back over there," he says. "I just didn’t want you walking out here alone."
I pause, keys in hand. It’s a courtly gesture, an everyday kindness. But tonight, it feels a lot like hope. I stand here, five thoughts warring at once in my head, each jamming the others so that not a one gets spoken. Because it strikes me just then that we create these clean, well-lighted places for each other. Hope flows both ways. It flows both ways. We conjure these temporary, malleable, and, most importantly, collaborative spaces for, and with, each other. We build them, not as escapes from a world gone unaccountably off track, but as paths through it. And from here on, we’ll have to make that happen. The scaffold is falling away.
"You have my e-mail," I say finally. "Use it." G. gives me a quick smile and saunters off, leaving me in a pool of light.