Most Read: Local

Posted at 10:04 AM ET, 12/02/2011

Guest post: In defense of a liberal education


St. John's College President Chris Nelson, left, talks with students on the Annapolis school’s campus. (Mark Gail - The Washington Post)
Liberal arts colleges have struggled in these lean years to retain the confidence of parents that they will prepare students for a better fate than barista duty. Studies consistently show lib-arts students get a good education. Yet, Georgetown researcher Anthony Carnevale and others have documented that graduates in science and tech fields stand to earn more money in the long run.

Here, then, is a guest post from Christopher Nelson, president of St. John’s College in Annapolis, an outspoken champion of the liberal arts.

Students headed for college are worried that they may not find employment when they graduate. Specialized career training at the undergraduate level might thus seem to have appeal. And yet, study after study suggests that this can be short-sighted. The best preparation for the workforce of tomorrow, for the jobs that have yet to be created, is a liberal education -- the kind of education most especially found at the small residential liberal arts colleges across the country.

In the latest of these studies, alumni of our national liberal arts colleges, including St. John’s College, describe just how much they have benefitted personally and professionally from their college experience. The Annapolis Group, a consortium of 130 independent liberal arts colleges, released the findings of a national survey.

The Annapolis Group survey found that 60 percent of liberal arts college graduates said they felt “better prepared” for life after college than students who attended other colleges, compared to 34 percent who attended public flagship universities. The reasons are undoubtedly many, but one of them must surely be the level of personal attention the student receives at these colleges. For instance, 89 percent of liberal arts college graduates reported finding a mentor while in college, compared to 66 percent for public flagship universities.

Another reason will be the efforts made at these colleges to help their students develop the skills they will need to use in any career or profession: thoughtful reflection concerning the ends and means of both public and private life, habits of inquiry that will open pathways to new discoveries, practice in shaping a thought and in listening to others - actually listening.

These are skills best honed in small classes, where students are not just taking lecture notes but are actively participating in their own education. There they get daily practice working with their classmates in analyzing problems, framing arguments, interpreting meaning, demonstrating propositions, and translating works written in a foreign language. Experience has taught us that education is a cooperative art that is best done with others who can challenge our thinking and open our minds to new ways of seeing the world and making our way in it. The stronger the community of learning, the more opportunity to practice this cooperative art. Once again, experience has taught us that smaller, residential campuses are stronger communities of learning that help to maximize these cooperative opportunities both inside and outside the classroom.

The best educated person today, just as yesterday, is one fully capable of adapting to or taking advantage of changing conditions, precisely because the well-educated adult has integrity of character, a rootedness in essentials, and a self-understanding that makes it possible to live well and consistently in an unpredictable world. That character and self-understanding are best shaped in communities of learning that are concerned more with foundations than with extravagances, more with roots than with branches.

How do liberal arts colleges go about doing this? Consider what they are asked to study. Students at St. John’s College study original works in mathematics and science, language and literature, politics and history, philosophy and theology. All of these books – from Homer to Shakespeare, Plato to Hegel, and Euclid to Einstein -- help students consider the deeply human questions: What kind of world do I live in? What is my place in it? What should I do with my life? How should I live a life that is worthy of my humanity? They then have a lifetime to practice the arts they have learned, to deepen their questions, and to choose with some intelligence the life that suits them best. Boundaries throughout the world are vanishing, and we need our next generation of leaders in every field, in every endeavor, to have been broadly educated across the disciplines rather than narrowly trained.

St. John’s graduates reflect the strengths of all liberal arts college alumni. They enter a broad array of careers, from entrepreneurial endeavors to medicine, law, and teaching. St. John’s College is among the top two percent of all colleges in the percentage of alumni who go on to earn PhDs, and the top four percent of colleges in the percentage of graduates who earn PhDs in science and engineering. These graduates have faced some of the most difficult texts ever written and have acquired intellectual virtues along the way: courage in the face of the unknown and the difficult; candor about their ignorance; industry in preparation; and open attentiveness to the words of their colleagues - all things that will stand them in good stead as they head into the world of work and family, citizenship and service.

Graduates of the nation’s many fine liberal arts institutions are prepared not only for a diverse range of career, but for life.

By  |  10:04 AM ET, 12/02/2011

Categories:  Liberal Arts, Pedagogy, Research | Tags:  St. John's College

 
Read what others are saying
     

    © 2011 The Washington Post Company