What is liberal education? How can colleges support it? And how can they attract more students to pursue it?
At a conference on such questions at Ursinus College, outside Philadelphia, the vice president for enrollment at Grinnell College, a far wealthier liberal arts institution in Iowa, shared the pitch he currently offers students and parents.
“I haven’t even done this for the Grinnell faculty,” Joseph Bagnoli Jr. said Friday to the audience of professors and others. “So it’s a little daunting to do this in front of liberal arts experts … I’d love to hear your feedback, in the interest of the best part of our tradition.”
“The term ‘liberal arts’ neither means liberal in the political sense, nor is it limited to the arts,” Bagnoli, who’s also Grinnell’s dean of admission and financial aid, says in his pitch. "Rather, this term dates back to classical antiquity and refers to the mastery of subjects deemed essential to becoming a free person.”
His pitch then discusses how “liberal artists” think critically, practice civil discourse and “let intellectual curiosity guide their investigations into truth, equity and justice.” He then provides students “some examples of the complex questions that they might engage.”
“Why does the U.S. have 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners?” he asks. “Why have more than 100 million people living in the world today been forcibly displaced from their homes? With near-unanimous consent among scientists that climate-warming trends are due to human activities, why can’t we reach consensus on environmental stewardship? When the leading cause of death in American youth is gun violence and over 70 percent of Americans support gun reform laws, why is there little hope of comprehensive gun legislation? Now stick with me here: divergent historical, political, economic and environmental, religious and philosophical perspectives make consensus on such complex issues an elusive proposition, but the good news is that liberal arts colleges are part of the solution.”
He wrapped up and asked his fellow liberal arts supporters, gathered in Ursinus’s Innovation and Discovery Center, what in the pitch “works for you, what doesn’t work for you?”
“Very little of that works for me,” Paul Stern, an Ursinus politics professor, immediately said—eliciting laughs.
“It sounds to me like there’s implicit in that a whole set of answers to serious moral and political questions—I don’t know that I see the difference between that and what a large research university would offer in terms of its problem-solving,” said Stern, who ended his comment by also critiquing the morning’s earlier presentation.
Another attendee said much of the pitch was “left-coded” politically. But others said students seem to be interested in the specific questions Bagnoli posed—one attendee questioned whether some rhetorical concession is perhaps needed, instead of just arguing for liberal education’s “intrinsic” value.
Michael Keaton, Ursinus’s own vice president for enrollment management, said, “I think it’s really, really effective points for students who are in high school, and parents.”
Laura DeSisto, director and a senior lecturer for John Hopkins University’s master of liberal arts program, told Bagnoli the root definition of artes liberales isn’t actually education essential to becoming free: it’s “the education befitting ones who are free.”
DeSisto also pitched a more succinct pitch for liberal arts, one used by her undergraduate alma mater, Massachusetts’s College of the Holy Cross: “In a world of diverse views on what is right, good, beautiful and true, how then shall we live?”
This was part of the debate at last week’s conference at Ursinus: whether the liberal arts should be marketed for its aesthetic or practical values, whether liberal arts’ desired outcomes can even be measured, how colleges can persuade conservatives of the tradition’s value, how administrators are inhibiting liberal education, and more. The discussion often used the terms “liberal education,” “liberal arts” and “liberal arts and sciences” in connection or interchangeably.
Earlier Friday morning, Wendy Fischman, a director with Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, shared results of a decade-long research project she did with Howard Gardner, research professor of cognition and education at the same school. Project Zero is a more than 50-year-old program that studies “human potentials,” such as learning and ethics, and how to support them.
In The Real World of College, she and Gardner wrote, the research involved over 2,000 interviews at 10 institutions, mostly of undergraduate students, but also young alumni, parents, faculty members and others.
Fischman said they found widespread difficulty among first-year students, graduating students, young alumni and parents in explaining what the liberal arts and sciences mean to them.
“I think that the implicit goal, or argument, for liberal education is that it actually does change people,” she said. She said the educational goal is a “transformational mental model,” rather than a “transactional” one, where college is mostly a way to get into graduate school and/or land a job.
“In general, we found that at the highly selective schools, there were more students who came in with a transformational mental model than the less selective schools,” she said. “But, over the course of college, it evens out, and so actually at the more selective campuses, by graduating year, there’s more students at those schools that are transactional than when they started.”
She referenced a previous, small study she and other researchers did of Harvard students. They ended up calling the paper “The Funnel Effect.”
“[Harvard] students might come in with broad notions of what college is about, but the experience tends to funnel them into thinking much more about the kinds of professions that they think will bring them more status and probably more salary,” she said.
Regarding beliefs about college’s purpose, she said, “Students are much more similar to those that are off campus—their parents, the young alums, trustees, even though they don’t know what they do or who they are—than they are to their faculty and administrators who, at least at the residential colleges, they presumably see every day.”
“As faculty and administrators, we need to help our institutions make the purpose, objectives and goals be really explicit,” she said.
But DeSisto expressed concern that terms like “transformational” are “another form of talking about it in ROI [return-on-investment] terms, as in ‘this is a product that we’re delivering to you.’”
“I can’t promise transformation to anyone, any more so than I can promise that a text that was transformative to me is going to be transformative to you, and so I don’t want to turn transformational learning into a commodity,” she said.
“The measurement of this is something that we can’t do, because it’s as complex as human life and the various pathways that we take,” she said.
On Tuesday, Robyn Hannigan, Ursinus’s president, said liberal education’s intrinsic benefits and workplace benefits aren’t “antithetical in any way.”
“Liberal education since its founding has been about helping a person understand the world and navigate their place in that world to the benefit of others,” Hannigan said. She said it’s about positioning students to be successful not just in their first job, but throughout their careers.
“And with that success being defined not just monetarily but also in being able to shape the world in which they live to a positive benefit to others,” she said.
Stern, the Ursinus politics professor, said the college started its Common Intellectual Experience (CIE) course about 25 years ago. All first-year students take the course, and the syllabus is the same for all, but each class is capped at 16 students.
Now, the focus questions of the CIE are reflected in the core curriculum, he said. They’re currently “What should matter to me?” “How should we live together?” “How can we understand the world?” and “What will we do?”
He said last week’s colloquium grew out of a two-year seminar at Ursinus about liberal education.
“We know there are other colleges doing similar things, and I think it’s good to know that and get together and encourage but also talk about how best to make our case [to people] for whom this kind of education is either unknown or unfamiliar or seems elitist or out of reach,” he said. “We really have to think about that.”