In Defense of the Liberal Arts

Article excerpt

Byline: Jon Meacham

At noon last Wednesday in Sewanee, Tenn., in a 19th-century Gothic hall dominated by a sandstone fireplace and decorated with portraits of somber bishops, the University of the South--my alma mater--elected a new leader, John M. McCardell Jr., the former president of Middlebury College. (We refer to our president as vice chancellor, in the English tradition. If the fates had ever brought Anthony Trollope and Tennessee Williams together to collaborate, Sewanee might have been the result.) Those of you who share an affinity for small institutions know the power of sentiment at such moments--how the old rooftops remind us of when we were young, and all of that. Arguing the interests of Dartmouth before the Supreme Court, Daniel Webster captured this feeling well: AIt is, sir, as I have said, a small college. And yet there are those who love it.A

I love Sewanee, an Episcopal university tucked away on 13,000 rural acres of the Cumberland Plateau. It is a place where students and faculty wear academic gowns to class, where the vice chancellor also serves as mayor, and where I spent four years without having a key to my room, much less locking it. Modernity intrudes with a single full-time traffic light on campus, but for years that incursion was ameliorated by the sight of a professor of religion's cat taking a daily nap on the street directly beneath the light. People knew to steer clear.

Belief in liberal-arts colleges like Sewanee, however, is about more than sentiment. As I sat listening to McCardell accept his election, I thought, not for the first time, about the difficulty of making the case for something so expensive and so seemingly archaic--an undergraduate liberal education--in an economic and cultural climate that favors efficiency and tangibility. It is inarguably hard to monetize a familiarity with Homer or an intimacy with Shakespeare.

It is just possible, though, that the traditional understanding of the liberal arts may help us in our search for new innovation and new competitiveness. The next chapter of the nation's economic life could well be written not only by engineers but by entrepreneurs who, as products of an apparently disparate education, have formed a habit of mind that enables them to connect ideas that might otherwise have gone unconnected. …