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Why a Communal Liberal Arts Education Matters -- More Now Than Ever

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Changing, precarious economic times have placed many liberal arts colleges in jeopardy. Some deeply respected schools have closed, while the question of relevance and justification haunts many others; a liberal arts education has been attacked as both too costly and unnecessary for job training. Some individuals, such as Peter Thiel, a founder of PayPal, have asked about "measuring the return" of a liberal arts education, As we all know, there are a number of educational institutions, predominantly online, heavily advertising their cost saving existence.

About the latter "solution:" It may seem initially appealing to reduce the cost of a liberal arts education by moving it on to cyber networks where the live (non-virtual) interaction between students and faculty (and other students) is very limited, if truly existent.

It is on a college or university campus that students learn and strengthens an ability to live together as part of a community in a concrete and irreversible way: to give and take, to solve disagreements maturely, to show respect to those whose ideas, opinions, and cultures are different than their own, to reach a more enlightened understanding -- in other words, to become a mature citizen.

Can you imagine the difference in our country (much less the world) if our own governing bodies were committed to reaching consensus in this way, rather than through the expression of rage, inflexibility, roadblocks, indecision, and mean-spirited discourse coupled with endless stalemates?

A liberal arts education is one that encourages individual capacity for awareness and circumspection -- because it helps us to learn how to think. The rewards are priceless: serious graduates of a liberal arts college have the ability to put together a full body of knowledge and realize the links between all that they study; to understand historical trends and truths; to evaluate what is accurate and what is not -- and why; and in this way to better understand their own complexities, as well as those of all humankind.

Our society needs above all -- and above all now -- thinkers who are able to encounter a variety of apparent problems from the vantage-point of understanding previously achieved solutions as well as failures and through this process move forward. In the long run young adults who have the blessings of this quality of full academic enrichment have a far easier time navigating the slippery slopes of life (its successes as well as inevitable disappointments and even failures), and as important, understand the importance of concern beyond themselves to the well being of others.

Permit me to boast a little: I am a graduate of Goucher College, a private, co-educational liberal arts school in Baltimore, Maryland. I am proud and respectful of our firsts: With an emphasis on global citizenship we were the first college to require that each student spend time studying abroad before graduation and in this way understand other countries and cultures by truly experiencing them; we were also among the first colleges to embrace internships and in this way encourage students to pursue a more individualized direction. Goucher's educational approach, enhanced by very close relationships between our students and devoted faculty, has led to inclusion in the highly respected college education guide, "Colleges That Change Lives."

Does the educational commitment of Goucher College and so many other schools of higher learning committed to quality liberal arts education create more agile minds able to engage in committed citizenship, as well as earn a living? It does. Does learning devoid of a campus experience with close student faculty relationships offer this enrichment? Quite simply, it cannot.

High academic standards and campus interaction, complimented, of course, with appropriate and creative use of technology to compliment and strengthen quality learning experiences (and not attempt to replace or dominate it), provide the world with men and women who understand critical thinking. They are able to appreciate universal truths apparent in all disciplines, as well as assess what is an ethical decision and direction and what is not -- not only in the workplace, but as young parents, community members and the future decision-makers of our nation and beyond.

Let's apply this reasoning to our current election. Can you bear to see another slanted ad or receive another robo-call? Can you bear to experience another set of lies spun as truths, used to seduce, unsettle, confuse, and even terrorize? The opportunity to experience a liberal arts education can truly liberate us -- making us far more likely to be able to distinguish the truth from falsity, the moderate from the extreme, and the humane from the inhuman.