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Raynard Kington

Raynard Kington

Posted: March 23, 2011 06:07 PM

The Role of Liberal Arts Colleges in Advancing Positive Social Change


The economic conditions of the past two years have fostered the belief that colleges should produce business-ready graduates. That has put liberal arts colleges on the defensive, with many people questioning the practical value of spending four years in an 'ivory tower' educational setting.

In response, the leaders of many liberal arts colleges have jumped into the fray to reinforce the core reasons why a liberal arts education is, in fact, right for the times. The essence of the argument is this: with today's fast-paced, continuously changing marketplace, a narrow, job-specific education ill-prepares graduates for an uncertain future. The liberal arts approach is better, as it helps individuals acquire vital intellectual capacities -- such as gathering intelligence, making informed decisions, expressing oneself clearly and innovating continuously -- that ultimately enable people to take courageous risks and solve big problems.

This argument indeed provides a sound rationale. However, in my opinion, it stops short and fails to underscore one of the most powerful outcomes of a liberal arts education: its historic and continuing role in advancing positive social change.

Many liberal arts colleges were started by social activists -- often with a specific social justice goal in mind. For example, Amherst was founded as an institution of higher learning for indigent young men. Brown was the first Ivy League school to accept students from all religious affiliations. Oberlin was a leader in the education of African Americans. Vassar was founded to give young women a liberal arts education equal to that of the best men's colleges. Smith, from its inception, has focused on connecting the college academic experience with larger public issues of human dignity and the rights and privileges of women. Macalester -- long before the practice was widespread -- embraced internationalism by recruiting foreign students, creating overseas study opportunities and hiring faculty from diverse backgrounds. And the founders of my own institution, Grinnell College, were social reformers, who specifically located the college in Grinnell, Iowa, where their abolitionist sentiments were more welcome. At the time, Grinnell was an important stop on the Underground Railroad that secretly transported slaves to freedom.

Beyond these founding principles, a commitment to positive social change is a true, data-supported point of distinction for many liberal arts colleges. A national survey by NASPA, the professional organization of student affairs administrators, recently revealed striking attitudinal and motivational differences between students at large universities and those at small liberal arts colleges. The liberal arts respondents consistently indicated a higher desire to 'learn for learning's sake,' 'to make the world a better place' and 'to volunteer immediately after graduation.' I am proud to note that in this survey, Grinnell students were among the country's most socially minded, rating social justice issues two to four times more important than the national average.

In many respects, a liberal arts college is the ideal environment for cultivating people inclined towards positive social change, as it requires individuals to be keen observers of the ways things are now, curious questioners of why and how things came to be and bold visionaries of what a different, better world could look like in the future.

An education at one of America's liberal arts colleges often involves experiences in social justice activities. At Macalester, for example, students tutor the children of immigrants and refugees. At Brown, students work with institutions directly tackling issues of health, economics, population and the environment in developing nations. And at Grinnell, students are helping to rebuild New Orleans and transform under-used land into affordable housing opportunities.

Our world desperately needs intelligent, passionate, engaged young people -- people who are educated in a way that equips and inspires them to change the world for the better. Liberal arts colleges have long embraced social justice within their academic missions and educational approaches. They prepare and celebrate graduates who work for non-profit organizations, educational institutions and government agencies, as well as those who infuse perspectives of positive social change in other settings such as the business world.

As a nation, we should treasure and support our liberal arts colleges, as they produce a disproportionate number of socially conscious innovators who have the capacity and motivation to change the world.