What's Included in the Price of a Liberal Arts College

04/21/2015 04:39 pm ET | Updated Jun 21, 2015

In the past week, my college has made the news by hosting a plethora of conversations, lectures, and protests focused around the idea of race.The dialogue began when a student group (called SOBHU--Students Organized for Black and Hispanic Unity) marched in a campus-wide protest to raise awareness of the recent cases of excessive police brutality against black people, alongside other injustices in Mexico and Nigeria, as well as hate crimes against trans women of color. They chanted things like "Black lives matter, trans lives matter, immigrant lives matter," and "We remember you!"

After the protests, several students took to an anonymous app called YikYak and posted racist, bigoted, intolerant things in response to the chants. They threatened the student protesters and demeaned the subjects of their chants with words not worthy of an online publication. All of their hate speech has been echoing in the thoughts and conversations of POCs and allies around campus, but a different form of aggression has also arisen; among the slurs and microaggressions, there were a lot of apathetic comments.

People were angry that the protests had "disrupted" their classes, and asked that the SOBHU students not "distract" from their educations, as though learning about recent acts of terror and racism is somehow not worth their time.

I tried to imagine one of my classes being "interrupted" by the protests. I imagine sitting in a poetry workshop, postponing a few comments for a minute to listen to chants. I imagine my History of Math professor pausing his discussion of Euclid's Elements so that we could read the signs. I imagine my Documentary Radio class muting This American Life for a bit so we could stand by the window and listen to student voices.

Though I wasn't in class at the time of the protests, I can not possibly think of a way in which a short disruption would really derail or halt a class period enough to be worthy of such apathetic, hate-filled complaints. Even though I'm learning great things in my courses, missing a few minutes of a class is nothing compared to the disruptions of violence and brutality that these students were making us aware of.

I started to think: what are these students valuing, if not the ability to participate in community-wide discourse? Are they going to college simply for the 10 hours of class a week, just to learn about four topics per semester, to limit themselves to one or two majors? If so, they are in the wrong place.

Liberal arts colleges (LACs) are known for their pricy tuitions and small class sizes. As a tour guide, I boast of my college's collaborative academic community and brilliant professors. But I also point out that as a liberal arts student, I do most of my learning outside of the classroom. The $60,000 yearly fee is a large sum to be paying for eight classes. Breaking it down, that's about $200-300 per class period, and I doubt any of us would pay that much for a one-hour lecture. The price of an LAC is only worth it for students who want to participate in a tight-knit community, in campus-wide discussions and protests, and in lectures or forums outside of the classroom.

Encyclopedia Britannica's definition of "liberal arts" is: "A college or university curriculum aimed at imparting general knowledge and developing general intellectual capacities in contrast to a professional, vocational, or technical curriculum."

It's crucial to understand the distinction between LACs and professional, vocational, or technical schools. LACs don't offer business courses, a journalism department, or pre-law majors because they aren't designed to train students for a specific career.

Liberal arts colleges intend to provide a well-rounded, all-inclusive curriculum accompanied by an engaged, small community. There is so much value in going to a vocational university or a technical school (and they tend to be much more affordable), so it is nonsensical to choose an LAC and not intend to participate in the broader discourse and community events.

Fortunately, many students have begun to participate in the discussions sparked by the SOBHU protest, and hopefully in the future it won't take anonymous, racist comments to encourage school-wide conversations.