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In the final few years that I served as president of Dickinson College, students increasingly came to me to chat about a change they sought in liberal arts education. They admitted that they had specifically chosen Dickinson in large part because of its focus on liberal arts education -- permitting both depth and wide range in subject matter of study, interdisciplinarity among academic areas, a sense of community, and strong faculty-student interactions.

But they said they’d been especially drawn to the college’s commitment to the intent of the founder, Benjamin Rush, to establish a distinctively “useful” liberal education for the new nation. Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, wanted the college’s educational offerings to stand in stark contrast to what was then thought to be a rather frivolous education for the privileged in the United Kingdom.

And while the Dickinson students understood that we were interpreting “useful” education today to be the acquisition of knowledge and skills to advance a democratic nation, both through profession and community commitment, they found the definition was still too vague for their immediate appreciation and application. Their frustration led me to a notion that potentially has wide implications for the reform of higher education, especially the student life programs on America’s liberal arts campuses.

What the students were actually saying to me is that, while they appreciated their liberal arts education and did not want to forgo it, they also wanted to achieve some practical and immediately applicable skills -- well beyond what is called “experiential learning,” critical thinking and problem solving based in an academic subject context. They were impatient with our various claims that they’d be able to apply what they learned in the classroom and extracurricular activities to the wider world of professional and community engagement. They were wary of the “trust us” posture.

Instead, while at college, they wanted to directly learn what some people would call the “trades” or commercially applicable skills. In fact, they admitted to me they did not know how the world worked, even at its most basic operational level, and that ambiguity was a great source of existential insecurity. They were living in a world over which they had no insight or control at the operational level.

For example, they didn’t know how their car worked; they just drove it and were helpless if it broke down. They often didn’t even know how to fix the bicycle they rode on the campus. They were clueless about the sources of their food and how best to prepare it. They had no idea about electricity, plumbing and carpentry. They didn’t understand sources of money and how the economy worked, especially as it affected them personally. And they really didn’t understand how their computers, smartphones and other technical tools operated.

My response to students at that time was to work with them to introduce a student-run organization called the Idea Fund. I initially gave a $15,000 grant from my presidential discretionary fund to launch the project. Students lead the Idea Fund, and its mission is to identify and solve problems in the Dickinson community, resulting in positive change. Among the students’ initial projects were the creation of a bicycle repair shop called the Handlebar and a bicycle-powered coffee cart to provide coffee in places between classes where it was not previously available. They filled their out-of-class time with activities that not only drew on the knowledge and thinking skills that they gained in class (including designing and managing a successful business), but they were also embracing manual labor by learning how to repair bicycles and build a mobile coffee cart from scratch.

As more and more students became engaged with the Idea Fund, I also noticed that they broadened their focus beyond building positive change projects to creating an immensely satisfying student life. The projects brought students together outside of class and became an engaging catalyst to their college social life. Students were finding a fulfilling, productive and fun-filled alternative to what they described to me as the endless repetition of mindless, alcohol-filled and often dangerous and illegal parties that occurred despite the college’s herculean efforts to offer alternatives or shut such events down.

Guilds of Engaged Students

Such experiences with liberal arts students lead me to propose an alternative and parallel course during undergraduate study -- one that could be a brand differentiator for those institutions wanting to appeal to a particular type of student whose academic and student life needs are unmet. What I propose has the possibility of deflecting public criticism that a four-year liberal arts education is useless and has little to do with employment or practical application to the “real” world. Yes, you can talk extensively about the usefulness of a liberal arts education -- admirably done yet again in the recently published book by Randall Stross, A Practical Education: Why Liberal Arts Majors Make Great Employees (Stanford University Press). Such arguments, however, have been presented to the public for centuries in America, and our pragmatic society seemingly will not accept, despite significant evidence to the contrary, that courses in philosophy, English, sociology and the like can help graduates obtain a first job out of college.

What I propose is that liberal arts colleges initiate a suite of trade-like programs that lead to various forms of certification and that parallel the liberal arts curriculum. Electronics, farming, auto repair, carpentry, coding, small business management, masonry, culinary arts, plumbing, tailoring and so on are all possible concentration areas. Recognized national organizations could provide the certification.

For instance, in Carlisle, Pa., the home of Dickinson College, the local high school has offered Oracle certification, and I have often thought that our college students could also pursue that option at the high school location, or that master craftspeople in the local area could informally grant various forms of certification. In fact, six years ago, I asked our college chefs, two of whom were certified by the Culinary Institute of America, if they would be willing to take on apprentice students, and the answer was affirmative.

Of course, the question arises about how students will be able to find time for such activities in an already busy college schedule. Dickinson students gave me the answer. As an alternative to the current social life that now leaves many students with unmet needs -- and in some cases alienates them totally -- each “trade” offered on a campus would become a “guild” and form the basis of a social life for engaged students. And it would be from the concrete purpose and acquired pragmatic skills of those operative guilds that students would productively extend into the community beyond the college to fulfill the obligations of a liberal education to be a powerful source of informed, engaged citizens, with concern for the welfare of others and the vitality of our democratic nation.

With practical skills emerging from these guilds, students will not only be able to participate actively in community projects later in life that demand such abilities, but would, I suggest, be potentially more appreciative of the wide variety of knowledge and skills other people possess that are necessary for a community to function and prosper. Respect for difference is advanced as well as potentially an overcoming of the regrettable dismissal of those who pursue professions demanding practical knowledge and skills.

In some ways, I experienced precisely such a situation when I was an undergraduate at Dickinson College years ago. I was a member of Army ROTC, a U.S. Department of Defense organization hosted on the Dickinson campus. Parallel to my liberal arts curriculum, I engaged in a regimen of extremely practical knowledge and experiential skills that would potentially lead to a first job after graduation: service as an officer in the U.S. Army. And it was among my fellow cadets of all class years at Dickinson that I formed a significant part of my social life during my undergraduate years.

What was noteworthy then and relates to my proposal now is that the ROTC instructors took every opportunity to impart upon us the applicability of the knowledge and skills we obtained through this parallel activity to our regular liberal arts curriculum. That effort permitted me to appreciate the relevance of a liberal arts education to a professional pursuit that had at first seemed alien to traditional academic studies. For example, instructors emphasized that a number of officers and soldiers had in their back pockets a book of poems, or recited poetry and literature to help them survive through long and demanding combat situations -- thus making vividly concrete the practical power of the literary word.

The location of the trades within the liberal arts might also go a long way in overcoming a situation that has confounded the United States for centuries: establishing a viable, respectable alternative to university education that might finally de-emphasize the effort of “College for All.” I argue that college is not for all and that many students in college would benefit from a more technical education -- and at once feel more pleased and productive about their lives and their commitment to citizenship. The more knowledge that college students have about the sophistication and exacting demands of the trades, the more respect might be given by college-educated citizens to their counterparts in those trades.

It is time for liberal arts institutions to boldly reform the student life programs they offer to be far more consequential and complementary to both academic studies and the needs of greater society. Many institutions are well along the way toward what I propose through greater volunteerism of students in their external communities as well as internships. The latter, however, usually take the form of white-collar career probing for students and are also not in-depth experiences over the entire course of undergraduate study, as is what I propose. Organizations such as Bringing Theory to Practice are also groundbreaking in their efforts to link purposeful student activity, such as community engagement and experiential learning, to increased student engagement, well-being and success.

But what we now need is for colleges and universities to entertain the trades in their midst as an impactful way to engage students, reform a sometimes aimless student life and overcome some age-old obstacles to bridging the prejudicial divide in America between those in the trades and those who graduate from a university.

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