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.