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The Case for Liberal Arts Education in a Time of Crisis

Small, private colleges teach students how to be not only workers but civically engaged citizens of the world.

Agnes Bun/AFP/Getty Images

Well before Covid-19 arrived on the scene, pundits were sounding the death knell for higher education—and now many are proclaiming that the pandemic has dealt the final blow. They may even be planning a memorial for when it is once again safe to gather in large groups.

I will not be attending. Neither will millions of people around the world whose own lives have been enriched beyond measure through higher education.

It’s true that public and private education have long been under scrutiny and stress—at least since strained state revenues decimated the once-robust financial backing for public universities, and highly competitive admissions helped escalate costs at private schools. Other long-term trends have fueled widespread suspicion of higher education and its aims: Consumers question our value relative to cost. Declining birth rates push us ever closer to a demographic reckoning that will lead to further revenue declines. The continuing denigration of science at the national level fosters corrosive skepticism of academia. Reduced funding restricts our ability to provide high-quality teaching, research, and co-curricular experiences, especially to underserved communities. Pervasive nationalism and white-hot rhetoric around immigration have decreased the number of international students seeking education in the United States.

So, yes, the pandemic has us on edge. But we can turn the present moment to our advantage—and by extension, to everyone’s advantage.

Indeed, colleges and universities need to focus now more than ever on what they do well. We must be clear on the benefits and outcomes we promise, and then we must deliver on that promise again and again. As I see it, higher education has three core purposes: to encourage lifelong exploration of the self and one’s own values; to develop the skills needed to embark on meaningful careers; and to prepare for full, and civil, participation in public life.

For private liberal arts colleges, a huge part of making good on this threefold promise is to prepare students not only for lives of thought and work but also for lives of civic engagement. The liberal arts and sciences ensure that our graduates have the skills and capacity to be fully engaged global citizens. This is true no matter the state of the world or the prevailing demands of the workforce.

I say this as someone who, before becoming president of a private liberal arts college three years ago, spent almost four decades in public higher education, primarily in large research institutions. I am proud of the good work my colleagues and I did, and I remain a staunch advocate for increasing funding and strengthening support of our public colleges and universities.

But being at Lewis & Clark has opened my eyes to higher education in new ways. Early on in my tenure, I discovered that the students who pursue the liberal arts and sciences are committed to collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking. They value sustainability, global perspectives, equity, and inclusion. They are curious, adventurous, and innovative.

These qualities all compel us to look, think, and act beyond our self-interest—to be ever mindful of the greater good. As faculty and students explore new ideas and fresh approaches to long-standing problems, they are thinking about the larger impact and societal implications of what they are learning and building. In a civic culture now grievously challenged to impress on us all the life-and-death consequences of our own actions in the public sphere, it is no exaggeration to designate these skills as nonnegotiable tools of survival.

The liberal arts also enable us to navigate other core challenges arising from our embattled civic order—such as climate change, inequality, mass incarceration, and immigration—while exploring broader, more inclusive conceptions of the common good. Exploring means questioning received truths, being open to new understanding and ways of knowing, to learning that the old things aren’t always the way you thought they were. This is the core method behind educational inquiry of all kinds.

When thinking this way, we are not simply reflecting on an issue or a problem in isolation; we are thinking through it. We are thinking with empathy and seeing in new ways the cultures, beliefs, and even realities that we once described as “other.”

This is how students begin to understand and appreciate the differences and the commonalities that exist across cultures, races, ethnicities, gender, and histories. They begin to recognize that, even though there are borders, we must embrace the borderless. This ultimately involves knowing and understanding science and mathematics, the humanities, the arts, and the social sciences by doing them. It is the “what” of education—the content of any civic curriculum worthy of the name.

And the logic of this curriculum always leads back to participating effectively in public life—to developing the discipline and habits of mind involved in pursuing the common good. In engaging with this core mission, we also develop the skills and resources we need in order to work with others beyond the academy to solve what seem like intractable challenges. This collaborative model of enterprise actually fueled many of the great innovations that have since become identified with private-sector success, from the idea of the internet to the development of landmark vaccines. It is indeed no accident that much of the work behind the effort to treat and contain Covid-19 is grounded in pioneering university-directed research.

At a moment of crisis such as this one, and as advocates for higher education, we need to broaden our case far beyond our accustomed in-groups of administrators, researchers, and faculty and student bodies. We must change the all too prevalent but false narrative that academics value theory over practice, that ivy-covered walls separate us from real-world problems. We can do this by more effectively engaging communities beyond our campus. Like many other schools, for example, Lewis & Clark participates in the nationwide Inside-Out Prison Exchange. The program brings undergraduates and incarcerated students together for a semester-long college course held inside a correctional facility. Undergraduates learn some of the reality of the criminal justice system. Prisoners may recover the personal voice often taken from them in incarceration.

Community partnerships nourish the citizenship values that we also encourage our students to embrace—especially as we seek to broaden social consciousness and make a positive impact in the world. They create opportunities for students to pursue their social justice interests at the same time as they acquire high-value skills.

I recognize that in many places across the globe—including the U.S.—this is dangerous stuff. Authoritarians suppress any efforts that make for a broadly informed citizenry. The slightly more tolerant may use this as fodder for the long-running culture war targeting the alleged excesses of a “politically correct” academy. But, when you’re learning with your eyes open, when you’re paying deep attention to social and environmental ills on both a local and global scale, you’re contrasting the way things are with the way they ought to be.

I concede that in advocating this model of education as the best way to move toward the global good, I’m doing so from an undeniable position of privilege—a secure institutional platform that is not available to many. Yet that’s all the more reason to insist that higher education continues to offer the greatest opportunities for preserving and advancing both our shared quest for the common good and our personal ambitions. In January, the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce released a first-of-its-kind study showing that, over a lifetime, graduates of liberal arts colleges earn a higher return on their education investment than do graduates of all other colleges.

Underscoring all the data are the stories I hear from students and alumni. Research studies and anecdotes attest that higher education still provides the best methods for separating facts from fiction. It is still the place where a habit for truth and the honorable treatment of all must be our daily discipline. It is still where students become active citizens.

Is all this a luxury? Perhaps. Can society function without it? Probably. But we need to clearly enumerate how our ongoing investments in higher education pay off handsomely for society. I am proud of having spent most of my career in large, comprehensive public universities, which provide a first step on the ladder of success for many. It’s now a pleasure to be involved in the power of the small college model. Ultimately, we must ensure that both approaches thrive, regardless of the economic headwinds we may face. In any event, the reports of our death are greatly exaggerated.