Thursday, March 29, 2007

Risky Business

Background: Liberal Arts Colleges in American Higher Education: Challenges and Opportunities, report of a symposium held on the Williams College campus in 2003.

It's hard to answer the question "Is Physics a Liberal Art?" when you're not exactly sure how to define "the liberal arts." But somehow this was the embarrassing position in which I found myself last fall while writing my lecture. (How did this happen? Wasn't I a Williams College graduate? Hadn't I just spent three years teaching the liberal arts??)

At one point in my research, I went to the websites of Williams College, Amherst College, and Swarthmore College to see what I could learn about the liberal arts from their mission statements. You can click the links yourself, but to summarize, Williams and Amherst offer quotations from past Presidents. Swarthmore doesn't seem to have a mission statement, but gives a few paragraphs about the College. With all three colleges, it's part philosophy, part marketing. Swarthmore works hardest on the marketing angle, presumably because its reputation as "The College with a Conscience" causes parents to worry about their children's ability to support them in their old age. "Just don't you worry," the text seems to say; "Swarthmoreans get to have it both ways. They can study broadly AND push the boundaries of plasma physics; they can be investment bankers AND care about alternative energy sources."

Language like this helps us approve of the liberal arts, but that's different from telling us what they are. So, looking for something more concrete, I simply googled "what are the liberal arts". None of the top fifty liberal arts colleges showed up in the first page of results, but result #4 was from the website of Kauai Community College. There I read the following two paragraphs:

What Are the Liberal Arts?

The liberal arts are the studies that develop general intellectual capacities, such as reason or judgement, rather than specific professional, vocational, or technical capacities. These studies encourage students to think clearly and creatively, to seek and assess information, to communicate effectively, to take pleasure in learning, to learn to adapt to change, and to live more consciously, responsibly, and humanely.

Why Study the Liberal Arts?

What is crucial in today's world of rapid change is not specialized training but the ability to think critically and make sound judgements. A student's best career preparation may be one that emphasizes general understanding and intellectual curiosity. The liberal arts develop these abilities and qualities of thought.

I was struck by the marvelous clarity of these words, and by the contrast they made when placed next to the flowery and equivocal language of Willams, Amherst, and Swarthmore.

One of the most important parts of KCC's text is the place where it says that the best career preparation may be one that emphasizes general understanding and intellectual curiosity. I like the honesty of this, because it seems to me that a liberal arts education is always a bit of a risk: a willingness to wait and figure life out when you get there. Years ago, a friend of mine was told by his undergraduate advisor: "A bachelor's degree in physics is just a license to think on your feet." Any liberal arts degree has that quality.

High school seniors from all over the country come to Bennington on college tours, and from time to time one of these young people will visit me in my office. The question I get is usually something like this: "What I really want is to be an engineer. Can I be an engineer if I come here?" I say yes, because the answer is yes; but I'll also add that coming to Bennington is clearly not the way to maximize your chances of being an engineer. Clearly, the way to do that would be to go the university route. The point is that a liberal arts education doesn't seek to maximize specific outcomes like "being an engineer;" and from what I can tell so far, the process works better when the people involved aren't asking for that kind of security. This is one way in which the reputations and the have-it-all strategies of Williams, Amherst, and Swarthmore might work against them. Making these schools the very safest choices possible for students and faculty might inevitably involve sacrificing the vitality of the risk-taking element of a liberal arts education. But, as the private colleges are finding out, it's hard to sell risk at $40,000 a year.

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