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Liberal Arts Education: From Clubbiness to Cosmopolitanism

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Lately there has been much talk about a crisis in American higher education. Business leaders and army generals, artists and scientists are all trying to figure out how to build on what is working in our universities and to get rid of those things that have outlived their usefulness. What kind of college experience best prepares our young men and women for the challenges ahead?

We are now in the season of college applications, a time when many high school seniors are trying to figure out which kind of school is right for them. Some of the most talented high school seniors will consider a broad based liberal arts education. It is worth noting that residential liberal arts colleges are specifically American institutions. Their scale promotes community, and their educational offerings resist premature specialization. But how relevant are these schools today? In an age where online communication is increasingly the norm, an age in which face-to-face contact is seen as inefficient or "uncomfortable," why should families make the great investment of spending four years in an artificially controlled community aimed at regular, intense personal interaction?

Decades ago, students who went to liberal arts colleges were likely to find people much like themselves. The schools drew on a fairly homogeneous population, and the relationships students developed there were supposed to enhance family networks and local connections.The liberal arts education was broadening (at least in terms of an introduction to the cultures of Europe and North America), and the social environment provided the "finish."

All of this began to change in the wake of World War II, and conditions were dramatically altered when schools made fair access a priority. The combination of proactive outreach to under-represented groups and the expansion of curricula far beyond the high culture of the West changed the demographics and the content of liberal education. Wesleyan University, where I now work, was a leader in this regard, aggressively looking for talented students from groups previously discriminated against, and creating classes that went far beyond the traditional offerings. By now almost all the highly selective liberal arts schools have made the diversity of their faculty and student body a significant priority. This means that the schools' financial aid budgets have grown even more quickly than tuition revenue.

But creating a more diverse faculty and student body wouldn't have meant that much if the curricula at these traditional schools hadn't also changed dramatically. Let's take the Music Department at Wesleyan as an example. At many schools the Music Department would have been the most tied to European high culture and the least likely to stray too far from the traditional canon. Wesleyan had long been a very musical campus - even known as the "Singing College of New England" because of its talented a cappella groups and championship Glee Club. Then, in the 1960's a few music professors received support for advanced work in ethnomusicology, a field almost unknown at our peer institutions. Soon, musicians from across Asia and then Africa were finding eager students and rapt audiences at Wesleyan. At Middlebury College, to take another example, language teaching is traditionally a core strength in the curriculum. But it's no longer just European languages and literature. Today's Middlebury student can major in Arabic, Japanese or Chinese while ensconced in rural Vermont. At Pomona College in California, students can still major in Classics or Philosophy, but they can also concentrate on Neuroscience or Chicano Studies. In Religious Studies or in English, in History or in Government, the course offerings of liberal arts schools have moved beyond the comfortably familiar to open cosmopolitan networks of learning. In all cases essential skills are still being taught, and students are still learning how to keep developing these skills long after their undergraduate careers are over.

The cosmopolitanism of curricula at America' best liberal arts colleges is in tune with the wonderful diversity of student life. The thirst for experimentation, the ability to cross disciplinary or cultural borders, the scale of residential life -- all of these factors extend to learning outside the classroom and create vibrant communities that students remember and value throughout their lives. Although many liberal arts schools are in rural settings or small cities, they are no longer isolated from global cultural or economic trends. The old fashioned quads at Amherst or Grinnell are now complemented by advanced communication technology. Student life is anchored on a campus, but it is now enhanced through robust global networks.

The great advantage of our cosmopolitan liberal arts education is that it allows students to explore international, virtual networks of knowledge while learning the virtues (the pleasures and effectiveness) of face-to-face conversation, team participation and cooperation. Whether learning music or biophysics, consistent personal contact with teachers and fellow-students deepens education. The key is that the students at these schools are developing skills, learning how to learn, in ways that will serve them for decades.

Liberal arts schools will continue to be proactive about finding students from diverse backgrounds because this enhances everyone's education in a residential community. Strong financial aid programs are crucial for making college affordable. And we must continue to enrich our curriculum by developing classes that go beyond traditional canons and methodologies because by doing so we open up new possibilities for learning and for life. Today's liberal arts students plug into expansive virtual networks, of course, but they do so without sacrificing campus interactions that give these networks additional intensity and relevance.

True, there are serious challenges to our residential liberal arts school model. But I take heart from the innovations I see across our sector that show how we can shape our institutional futures by becoming more open to the wider world while continuing to value the vitality and intimacy of our campus communities. As long as we can balance intense personal learning with cosmopolitan participation, I am confident we will continue to facilitate the development of young men and women adept at solving problems, pursuing opportunities, and contributing to their communities. The evolution of liberal arts education in America -- from clubbiness to cosmopolitanism -- might just provide a model for addressing some of the challenges ahead for our nation and indeed the world.

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