In Defense of a Liberal-Arts Education A Broader View on Life and Learning, Such as That Offered by Liberal-Arts Colleges, Is Required of America's Leaders

By Thomas E. Cronin. Thomas E. Cronin, president of Whitman College American politics and government. | The Christian Science Monitor, April 21, 1994 | Go to article overview

In Defense of a Liberal-Arts Education A Broader View on Life and Learning, Such as That Offered by Liberal-Arts Colleges, Is Required of America's Leaders


Thomas E. Cronin. Thomas E. Cronin, president of Whitman College American politics and government., The Christian Science Monitor


SPRING is the season when graduating secondary school seniors and their parents make critical decisions about college or university choices.

Students in America are blessed with choices. There are more than 3,000 colleges and universities in the United States, ranging from community colleges and vocational institutions to the finest research universities in the world. Most students will stay close to home. About half will commute from their home to a nearby institution. Eighty-one percent of all first-year college students will attend colleges in their home states. Some 80 percent of matriculating students will attend public colleges and universities. The rest will go to independent or church-related colleges and universities.

There are about 600 independent liberal-arts undergraduate colleges in the US - and incidentally, there are few elsewhere in the world. Liberal-arts colleges are concentrated in great numbers in the Northeast. But excellent liberal-arts colleges exist all over the country, from Davidson and Rhodes in the south to Reed and Whitman in the Pacific Northwest.

Why select a liberal-arts college?

First, liberal-arts colleges celebrate and reward outstanding teachers who have a passion for their subjects and are devoted to helping students learn. An inspiring teacher can profoundly influence a student's life. At liberal-arts colleges, your professor is your teacher; there are almost no graduate-student teaching assistants. The best liberal-arts colleges have dozens of exceptional professors who push their students and engage them one-on-one. Teachers at the best liberal-arts colleges also serve as advisers, mentors, coaches, and role models of what it means to be educated.

Second, in liberal arts colleges, learning is viewed as a verb, not a noun. Learning is viewed as a process of stretching, exploring, and thinking critically rather than as memorization and feeding facts back to professors on quizzes and exams. Liberal-arts colleges challenge students to write, to debate, to participate actively in small classes and seminars, to conduct independent research, to examine existing theories, tear them apart, and put them back together again.

Third, a liberal-arts college is an ideal place to explore what it means to be a human being, to debate the obligations of citizenship, to learn about democracy and market economics and their alternatives.

It also is a splendid place for reading and rereading the classics - Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles, Kant, Hegel, Shakespeare, Rousseau, Marx, Smith as well as Jefferson and Madison. And it is an excellent place for exploring non-Western literature and alternative ideologies and religions, and to learn about Muslim, Buddhist, or African philosophy. …

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