The Liberal Arts Are Not Synonymous with Elite Private Colleges

For a couple weeks now, I’ve been meaning to circle back to a post by Muhlenberg College president John Williams that John Fea shared at his blog. I still haven’t had time to write up a full response, but I thought I’d go ahead and share what Williams wrote — and why it simultaneously encourages and irritates me.

John Williams with Muhlenberg College students
Williams started his presidency last year – Muhlenberg College

Writing for EducationDive, Williams noted that participants in this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland listed things like problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, coordinating with others, and emotional intelligence among the top ten most important skills for careers in the near future. Williams was thrilled:

The list is remarkable, both for what it includes and for what it doesn’t; and for the fact that it is as timeless as it is forward-looking. For our purposes, it serves as a useful gauge for the value of the education our students receive at… liberal arts colleges.

As I reflect upon the list, I realize graduates of… liberal arts colleges will smile as they read it, reminded that their education focuses on skills that will be valuable across a lifetime.

While technological change is reshaping how we work and for whom, Williams concluded that

for all this techno-wizardry, the critical skills on WEF’s list for careers in 2020 resemble closely those that have defined the leaders who have emerged from… liberal arts colleges for decades. These colleges have structured their academic curricula and residential life programs in ways proven over time to produce graduates who excel in all of these skills…. careers of the future will emphasize so many of the multi-dimensional cognitive skills and reflective, adaptive habits of mind developed at… liberal arts colleges.

Yes, and amen. I believe the liberal arts accomplishes all this, and more. But you might have noticed that I replaced some words or phrases in Williams’ post with ellipses. Here are the affected sentences again, with those words reinserted and italicized. See if you notice a theme:

…it serves as a useful gauge for the value of the education our students receive at highly-selective liberal arts colleges.

As I reflect upon the list, I realize graduates of top liberal arts colleges will smile as they read it…

…the critical skills on WEF’s list for careers in 2020 resemble closely those that have defined the leaders who have emerged from top liberal arts colleges for decades.

…careers of the future will emphasize so many of the multi-dimensional cognitive skills and reflective, adaptive habits of mind developed at fine, highly-selective liberal arts colleges.

Williams is president of what U.S. News & World Report deems to be the 72nd best national liberal arts college in the nation. For over thirty years, he has served on the board of Amherst College, #2 on that list. Amherst is Williams’ undergraduate alma mater; he received his J.D. and M.B.A. from Harvard (#2 among national universities).

It’s a world I know fairly well. Thanks in large part to my parents sending me to a private college prep school, I got to start my postsecondary education at the 34th-ranked national university in the U.S. News list and then continued it at the 3rd-ranked school in that list (in a department that was then #1 in its discipline).

So I get the appeal of “top” and “highly-selective” schools; I know firsthand that they do excellent work with their students.

But is there any reason to believe that the benefits that Williams rightly links with the liberal arts are limited to “top” colleges?

If anything, I’d tend to think that those schools simply attract students who already possess many of those talents in significant measure. (Thanks to an increasingly ridiculous admissions process that has rightly been ridiculed in several publications this spring.) The distinctive advantage that such schools can offer students is not elite education, but elite access: to top-tier graduate and professional schools, Fortune 100 companies, high political office, etc., all through the magic of “institutional reputation” and well-oiled alumni networks.

Maybe I’m wrong. Please let me know if there’s evidence suggesting that highly selective, highly ranked colleges do better at the liberal arts than those of us toiling several rungs down that ladder — e.g., cite assessment results showing greater gains by those students than others in critical thinking, problem solving, cultural competency, writing and oral communication, etc.

World Economic Forum logoBut in any event, there’s another problem with Williams’ piece: it assumes that the liberal arts ought to be bound up with the political and economic status quo. Here’s his last line:

As the good people in Davos keep coming up with new lists, top liberal arts colleges will keep doing what we’ve done for generations: educating the next generations of successful leaders who will go on to change the world.

All things being equal, I’d rather we have presidents and CEOs who had a rigorous background in history, literature, languages, religion, philosophy, fine arts, and the natural and social sciences than to privilege engineers and MBAs. But reproducing a new generation of elites is not the goal of the liberal arts.

If anything, I would hope that a liberal arts education would lead young people to question the inequalities so deeply embedded in the Davos world; they should use their critical thinking and communication skills to identify injustice and speak truth to power.

And having been told again and again that the unexamined life is not worth living, I would hope that they would take a hard look at their own lives. They might then admit that their achievement is not entirely of their own making, and they might discover that their ambitions are not of their own dreaming. The liberal arts should help them hear callings that are too often drowned out by a world that mistakes power for leadership, productivity for accomplishment, and success for meaning.


4 thoughts on “The Liberal Arts Are Not Synonymous with Elite Private Colleges

  1. I like your points, Chris. And if liberal arts programs accomplish what they say they accomplish, then one outcome – not often mentioned? – will be that students question their education (not reflexively smile and congratulate themselves for successfully being formed in the image of what the world wants). Since graduating from Bethel University, I have questioned many aspects of my experience there – while ALSO reflecting with deep gratitude for many gifts, some that certainly came unexpectedly and were not written into the program itself.

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