08/09/2013 11:09 am ET Updated Oct 09, 2013

Seeking Higher Ground

This past week, 165 university presidents and chancellors wrote an open letter to President Obama and Congress expressing concern about a growing "innovation deficit" -- the gap between needed and actual investments in research and education. The letter, coordinated by the Association of American Universities and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, cautions that, "Failing to deal with the innovation deficit will pass to future generations the burdens of lost leadership in innovation, economic decline, and limited job opportunities." The higher education leaders maintained that greater investments in research and education would contribute to our nation's long-term economic growth and fiscal stability.

As a college chancellor, I am in full support of a greater investment in the higher education sector. I have the opportunity to speak frequently about the many benefits of higher education. In talking to prospective students, I cite compelling statistics about those benefits -- a higher employment percentage, a lower underemployment percentage, a higher median starting salary, and greater lifetime earnings. And, as chancellor of Albion College, a four-year liberal arts college, I espouse the particular value of a liberal arts education.

Here's why I believe that a liberal education is so critical. According to a national advocacy, action and research initiative by AAC&U, called Liberal Education and America's Promise (LEAP), there are four essential learning outcomes that flow from a liberal education: knowledge of human cultures and the physical and natural world, intellectual and practical skills, personal and social responsibility, and integrative and applied learning. With such breadth in their education, liberal arts graduates are better prepared to navigate through the seismic changes -- economic, political, technological, environmental, and cultural -- that are now taking place and to face perplexing challenges yet to come.

Yet, I wonder if our call to the nation's leaders for greater funding for the higher education sector and my conversations with prospective students about the value of a liberal arts education look far enough into the future. I recently revisited a classic, Lessons of History, 1968, written by two Pulitzer Prize-winning historians, Will and Ariel Durant. In their fascinating survey of the culture and civilization of humankind, the Durants posit that the great civilizations don't die. Some of the most precious achievements in a civilization, such as language, writing, art and song, are able to survive and are "tenaciously maintained through the perilous passage from one civilization to the next."

The Durants see the vital role that higher education plays in this enterprise. They ask us to "Consider education not as the painful accumulation of facts and dates and reigns, nor merely the necessary preparation of the individual to earn his keep in the world, but as the transmission of our mental, moral, technical, and aesthetic heritage as fully as possible to as many as possible, for the enlargement of man's understanding, control, embellishment, and enjoyment of life."

Liberal arts colleges have a special responsibility to transmit our heritage. If we have done our job, we will have prepared our graduates to understand and appreciate the key elements of our civilization, to improve and build upon this foundation, and to transmit fully and authentically our heritage to the next generation.

In future conversations, I will continue to emphasize the critical importance of our nation's investment in research and education to ensure the United States retains its role as a global leader. In talking to prospective students, I will still call attention to the many immediate and direct benefits of a liberal arts education for them as individuals and for their communities. After all, they want, and we want, success in their personal, career and community lives.

However, in these discussions, I will now add a codicil...I will speak to the unique and noble calling of liberal arts colleges. If, as the Durants contend, civilization is not simply inherited, but "learned and earned by each generation anew," it is our profound responsibility to graduate broadly educated citizens of the world to ensure that the remarkable achievements of our civilization will be passed down from generation to generation.