President Rebecca Chopp spoke to a packed audience of students, faculty and visitors last Thursday about her vision for the future of liberal arts education.
First, President Chopp defined what she termed “the 20th-century case for liberal arts, [what] we were educated in, [what] we believe in and grew up on.” She noted the past success of 20th-century liberal arts education, which she said could be broadly described by three principles: critical thinking and intellectual agility, moral choices, and civic responsibility.
In the lecture, titled “Against The Grain: Making the Case for Liberal Arts in the 21st Century,” Chopp addressed the challenges to the liberal arts system. She then made the case for a new paradigm.
“I worry colleges are equating undergraduate education and job training,” said Chopp. She stated that America is seeing the disappearance of liberal arts colleges as some of them develop pre-professional modules.
And yet, there are practical hurdles.
“Our failure to curb tuition increases or at least explain them satisfactorily has damaged our credibility,” she said. “Constant tuition increases coupled with the assumption of increasing endowment returns” are unsustainable, she continued. And critics are quick to jump on idealism.
One critique is “that education should be about job creation and long term financial stability. [Another is] that liberal arts education is a hopelessly romantic endeavour, designed to get privileged students a taste for cultural, elite lives under the guise of education,” said Chopp.
In spite of all these challenges and criticisms, Chopp believes a liberal arts education is justified and necessary. Important contemplative experiences like these are becoming scarce in American education, and thus in American society.
“In the 21st century interdisciplinary, community-based modes of knowledge will supplement traditional methods of gaining [knowledge],” said Chopp.
For Chopp a “21st-century case for liberal arts” is based around three primary facets: the expansion of the definition of critical thinking, the extension of the role of the campus community into the public sphere, and the creation of a “new anthropology” focused on the meaning of life and the creation of individual character.
“There is a need for diverse and sustainable communities that can promote individualism as well as civic commitment,” she said. “The intermingling of curricular and extracurricular activities in residential colleges transforms the lives of students and no other system of education marries self development with community engagement like [the liberal arts does].”
If Swarthmore maintains the status quo, said Chopp, we can only hope that other liberal arts colleges hold out against the forces threatening the liberal arts system. Her alternative is to unite Swarthmore with its peers in order to challenge the rising tide.
Featured image courtesy of Jim Graham.