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One Way of Making Liberal Education Work

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Having never been part of an "online community," I am really pleased to have been asked to write a blog for the Huffington Post.

I understand that this is about exploring ideas and new ways of looking at old problems and not about institutional or personal promotion. What I offer below is in good part about what we are doing at Antioch. I offer it in the hope that it speaks to many of the questions being asked about higher education and its connection to the workplace.

To those of you who have not followed what is happening at Antioch, tucked away in Yellow Springs Ohio, what we have been doing could easily be termed "ill-advised."

We've been reopening a liberal arts college.

That college, Antioch, has a long, storied and often controversial history that appeared to end when it was closed in 2008.

We bring Antioch back to life not to show how contrarian we are (although we can be pretty contrarian), but because we believe we offer a distinctive program that provides answers to many of the critical questions raised by college critics.

It seems to me that increasing skepticism about higher education is based on three primary issues -- lack of rigor, escalating costs and preparation (or lack thereof) for the world of work.

The oft' cited Academically Adrift (University of Chicago Press, 2011) reported that 36 percent of students do not demonstrate any significant improvements in learning during their four years in college.

Part of the problem, suggests Richard Arum, professor of sociology at NYU and co-author of Academically Adrift, is the lack of academic rigor.

More than one-third of the 2,000 students surveyed said they spend five hours per week or less studying each week. At the release of Adrift, Arum told NPR's Steve Inskeep: "Many of them will say the following: 'I thought college and university was going to be harder than high school, and my gosh, it turned out it's easier.'"

Such students are "slipping through the cracks" at many large institutions. Not surprisingly, the data show that students at small liberal arts colleges work harder and learn more. In small classes with demanding professors, the students in our founding class (they will graduate in 2015) complain about being over not under worked.

But admittedly this "lack of cracks" comes at a cost. Small liberal arts colleges are among the most expensive in the nation and, according to the Federal Reserve Bank, total student loan debt hovers at $867 billion. This issue cannot be ignored.

So we decided to use our re-opening to create an educational model that will keep costs down and offers as much aid to students in need as our fundraising can support. At this time, all of our students attend tuition free; charges for room and board are levied based on the ability to pay.

And what about preparation for this ever-more competitive economy? This is likely the most significant of these issues. Recent reports show that over half of bachelor's degree holders under 25 are unemployed or underemployed.

So damning are such statistics that James Picht, the senior editor for The Washington Times' Communities Politics and an economics teacher at Northwestern State's Louisiana Scholars' College, called a college education "increasingly irrelevant."

Picht's critique of the liberal arts and humanities is essentially this: students spend too much time engaged with the classics and the scholarship of difference and too little time learning the hard skills in math, science, economics, and language that they'll need to function in the world.

Embedded in Picht's critique is a belief that liberal education is unconcerned with practical things.

Defenders of liberal arts point out that the fast-changing economy demands multiple skills and a platform of knowledge on which flexible careers can be built. Of course that "platform" provided by a liberal education is the core of American higher education. For regardless of major, most students attending small private colleges like Antioch, community colleges, and research institutions around the country are required to complete a broad distribution of courses across disciplines -- in the arts, humanities, sciences, and social sciences.

As valuable as I believe this platform to be, it is also true that outside of the pre-professional, we often fail to make further connections between college curriculum and the world of work.

Antioch has made that connection concrete since the 1920s when then-President Arthur Morgan established the College's program of cooperative education. On their periodic full-time work terms, our students have the opportunity to connect academic study to the needs of the work place. The notion is simple: We make an apprentice of every student, the bioscience major and the philosophy major.

There is sound pedagogical theory behind this but it is also a very practical plan. Our students graduate with a resume, interview skills, and deep respect for the value of an alarm clock.

Graduating without onerous debt, with the broad knowledge provided by a liberal arts education as well as significant work experience, our students, we trust, will have the knowledge and skills to be effective in the world.

Let me add one more important component of our philosophy. At the revived Antioch students find great respect for learning, but also for admitting the limits of that learning. We are very aware that we do not have answers to many of the most significant questions raised by this rising generation. (Later on, I hope I can write a piece about how important it is to acknowledge how ignorant we are about so many crucial matters.)

For example, the new Antioch starts with the premise that the way we live in America today is not sustainable. As do many small colleges, we now have a working organic farm, electric lawn mowers, etc. Although it is expensive and we have a modest endowment, we also have a dormitory on track to be the oldest building in the country renovated to Gold LEED standard. But we know that our goal of having a carbon neutral footprint is still beyond our reach.

So, yes, we think that our program is "practical." We have much to contribute to but also a great deal to ask of our students. Essentially --"take what we have to offer and please go out into the world and help us clean up the many messes we have left for you to solve."

We wish them Godspeed.