Thinking liberally

What are we doing here? That question isn’t as cheeky as it sounds, based on conversations last year in the Committee on Educational Policy (CEP). The group considered how students here move through the curriculum. We gathered data on enrollments across academic divisions, on majors and double majors and on other relevant student choices. We also elicited student and faculty opinions on curricular matters through a number of surveys and public discussions. We’d like to highlight some of our findings as a starting point for a broader conversation.

More and more students are double majoring (currently 40 percent, up from 15 percent 30 years ago), and that has come with a narrowing in the breadth of courses that our students take. Students cite many reasons for these trends including ever-increasing peer pressure to double major (a typically “Williams” thing to do) and a prevalent assumption that more credentials (rather than a more diverse range of courses taken) will make them more competitive on the job market after college. Students have suggested that faculty advising is not as effective as it could be in helping them understand how to make the most of our curriculum and that there is little awareness of the very character and goals of a liberal arts education. Students and faculty both note that as a community, we rarely take the time to discuss what distinguishes the liberal arts college experience from that of the university or a technical college. What is it that we do here at Williams, in other words, and why?

As Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan College, has most recently shown (Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters), there has in fact been a centuries-long discussion in the United States about the aims of a liberal arts education. Thomas Jefferson saw a liberal arts education as essential to maintaining democracy. He thought the key was to offer many disciplines and subjects for study – especially in new fields of inquiry – with the aim being not to learn a profession but to learn how to learn and thus to think for oneself. For Frederick Douglass, author, orator and abolitionist, a liberal education was similarly about freedom – intellectual and political. Moreover, as a means of countering the racism of slave-owning America, it was a possibility that should be open to all, regardless of skin color or socio-economic status. For Ralph Waldo Emerson, the poet and essayist, the primary goal was the development of personal creativity and a kind of radical self-reliance – in other words, interior transformation. For Jane Addams, Chicago social reformer and founder of Hull House, the key to a liberal arts education was in allowing students to make links with the outside world and to learn by participating in communities and real-life situations beyond the campus, through service learning and civic engagement. For William James, the Harvard philosopher and psychologist, it was about learning to see what was difficult to see, both what is complicated and what is different from or strange to us. For Albert Einstein, the purpose was to train the mind to think beyond what’s already known.

More recently, Vartan Gregorian, former president of Brown University, has argued that the goal of a liberal arts education is to acquire an awareness of the unity of knowledge in the face of the fragmentation of academic specialization. It allows students to explore relationships and connections between and amongst different fields of inquiry and thereby to see bigger pictures, an essential skill that students can apply to any endeavor out in the world. Rebecca Chopp, theologian and former president of Swarthmore College, characterizes the distinctiveness and value of the residential liberal arts college experience specifically, as a combination of three principles: the use of “critical thinking” or “knowledge design” to focus on the development of intellectual flexibility and new modes of teaching and learning; the cultivation of a moral and civic character, through “intentional communities” that unite the campus and the outside world; and finally, the use of knowledge and virtue to improve that outside world.

These views are a sampling from a much wider conversation, one which the CEP, along with the Office of the Dean of Faculty, invites the Williams community to continue on campus this year. Several dinners involving students and faculty at the President’s house will provide one context for discussing some of these themes. In February, there will be programming associated with Claiming Williams, and in April, a panel involving a number of recent successful alumni will discuss the value of a liberal arts education, as embodied by their own experience at Williams and beyond. In addition, a number of events scheduled for the year, including several under the banners of “The Book Unbound” and “At What Cost?” (through the Gaudino fund), will engage related topics. We also hope to use these columns in the Record as a forum to share perspectives, and we invite ideas for other means of continuing these conversations. Our hope is that these public discussions on the nature and possibilities of a liberal arts education will inspire us all to take maximum advantage of our curriculum – and the experience of Williams College as a whole – in the years to come. Keep an eye out for “Why Liberal Arts?: Challenging, Transforming, Connecting” (#WhyLiberalArts) over the course of the upcoming year, and send us your suggestions.

Peter Low, Chair of CEP, Professor of Art, Lee Park, Past Chair of CEP, Associate Dean of Faculty, Professor of Chemistry, Ben Augenbraun (’15), Walford Campbell (’17), Minwei Cao (’17), Candice Dyce (17), Jack Hoover (’15), Susmita Paul (’16).