In Defense of Liberal Arts

I have a bee in my bonnet. A bone to pick. An axe to grind. And its about liberal arts education. I’m ALL fired up. So bear with me as I mount my soapbox for a moment and then we’ll move on to what this has to do with community (because I promise you, there’s a connection there somewhere – there always is).

In case you haven’t heard, liberal arts colleges are getting a bad rap these days. Parents and prospective students alike are questioning the value of a liberal arts education. Conventional wisdom suggests that its a better deal to send your kids to a technical school where they will learn marketable skills (i.e. nursing, engineering, etc) or go to community college and live at home to save money.

After all, a degree is a degree, right?

I have a problem with this logic. And yes, I am biased: my husband is a professor at a small liberal arts college. A small liberal arts college that happens to be in the midst of a financial crisis, along with most small, private liberal arts colleges across the country. Our college president recently shared the following anecdote. She had a conversation with an alum who told her how his best years were the ones he had spent at this college. But no, his child was not considering following in his footsteps: community college is cheaper.* Its parents like him that drive me batty.


Because college is not just about credits. We shouldn’t be making decisions about the education of the future generation based on which calculus class is cheaper! Nonetheless, the indisputable fact is that our society is moving away from valuing liberal arts education.

Meanwhile, in Ghana at Ashesi University College, something else is happening. And it’s happening because its founder has the following vision: “Imagine if every Sub-Saharan African country had several small liberal-arts colleges, dedicated to nurturing critical thinking, effective communication skills, practical experience, and a true concern for society in their students. Such a development in Africa would make a tremendous positive impact on the continent. This is our vision: An African Renaissance driven by a new generation of ethical entrepreneurial leaders.”

You can learn calculus and sociology and biology outside of small liberal arts colleges. And I understand that some people have a legitimate reason for why they prefer community colleges, or technical schools, or online universities. But a college, especially a liberal arts college, is a place where young people also learn how to be good humans.

That’s because small liberal arts colleges force you into community. Community with your professors. Community with people studying subjects completely foreign to your own. Community with roommates and hallmates who are annoying in their peculiarities. There are scads of extra-curriculars, intramurals, student government and service opportunities.

If we could assign credit value to all the learning 
and growth that happens OUTSIDE the classroom at a 
small liberal arts college, the price-to-credit 
ratio would look much, much different.

So what are we sacrificing at the altar of the almighty dollar? Could it be the “new generation of ethical entrepreneurial leaders”? I sure hope not.

And now I will step off of my soapbox. We return you now to your regularly-scheduled community-minded musings.


*As a footnote, I was able to attend a small liberal arts college for four years and graduate with zero school loans. This was due to a combination of hard work on my part to earn money, a generous financial aid package from my college, very small contributions from my lower-middle-class parents who had already put two kids through small liberal arts college, and scholarships. And no, I’m not that smart. So the scholarships were not ginormous. Anyway, the point is that small liberal arts colleges CAN BE AFFORDABLE.



2 comments on “In Defense of Liberal Arts

  1. Lisa says:

    Rebecca, my husband is a professor (Philosophy) at a small liberal arts school also, and we were both fortunate enough to attend and graduate from an excellent small liberal arts school. So we’ve had lots of conversations about this very concern. A liberal arts education is something easily appreciated after the fact and hard to do justice describing; though you did a mighty fine job!

  2. Elizabeth says:

    I love this post, but then again, I’m another professor’s spouse who also has a degree from a liberal arts school (the same one as you!). I think the best point you make is the “value” of all of those other things that come along with small liberal arts schools, those things that you can’t quantify.

    That said, I also understand those who choose other road for practical or other reasons, and I’m not sure I think a liberal arts school is for everyone. I’ve met some college students who aren’t benefiting from the liberal arts education (not because it is failing them, but because they aren’t interested in what that sort of education values), and to those I want to say, “Really?”

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