Columns » Jay Barth

Back to school



Those of us who spend the bulk of our professional lives in the classroom get the benefit of two "new years" each year. In addition to Jan. 1, we get an opportunity every August for another round of reflections and resolutions. As I complete my syllabi this week for the new semester, the reflective moments seem a little more pronounced than usual. For one, this marks my 20th year as a professor on a small liberal-arts college campus. Second, the last year has seen emphatic questioning of the continued value of a liberal arts education with the arrival of MOOCs (massive online open courses). MOOCs are THE topic of conversation in higher education circles with many, like the University of Arkansas System president, arguing for a central role for online courses in higher education's future.

So, what is it about a more personalized (and therefore more costly) liberal arts college education that provides it ongoing relevance in 2013 and beyond? Having spent more than half my life on a liberal arts campus, I've come to see that such colleges are fundamentally reinventors — of their students, their faculty members, and, increasingly, of the institutions themselves. The priority placed on innovation and experimentation in today's liberal arts colleges is what makes them uniquely transformative places to teach and learn.

Many students' transformations are fundamentally academic in nature. However, personal reinventions are not brought about just by what happens inside the classroom or through course-related work like undergraduate research. Students' work outside the classroom (in student organizations and on playing fields) or even away from campus just as often the source for change. And, perhaps most important, the small liberal arts college creates a safe zone for some of the most difficult of personal reinventions. Watching this growth at close range over a four-year period is, indeed, the greatest gift of being a professor at a small liberal arts college.

This is not to deny that scores of students have their lives changed each year through educational experiences in the array of other higher education institutions. I see it personally in my work with Single Parent Scholarship Fund; those students' newly gained skills, often at public universities and technical colleges, fundamentally change the economic futures of themselves and their children. However, liberal arts colleges are unique in their commitment to thinking about the "whole student" in the growth that can occur during the undergraduate years and, just as important, in the preparation of students for a lifetime of intellectual and personal growth. In short, liberal arts colleges change lives but, more importantly, prepare students for lives of change.

Liberal arts campuses also provide a rare (indeed, almost unique) environment in higher education for faculty lives to be changed because of the freedom afforded them to take real chances intellectually and professionally. Among my faculty colleagues, I have witnessed a classicist become a children's literature expert and a researcher of American political institutions become a scholar of Hannah Arendt. These shifts have required deep investments of brainpower and time in new subject matter that offer students outstanding modeling of lifelong learning and personal reinvention. For myself, I have had the freedom to engage in the public arena as a component of my professional development.

The rapid change in higher education during the first decades of this century convinces us liberal arts colleges must embrace this spirit of reinvention exhibited by their students and faculty if they are to continue to thrive. Indeed, some of these innovations will incorporate digital technology but in ways that maintain the personal connections at the heart and soul of successful liberal arts education. Successful innovation is possible when a place has confidence in its mission of "whole person" education.

However, even those of us who are not products (and employees) of liberal arts institutions should care deeply about their survival in the United States. That is because the liberal arts model offers a distinctive space within American higher education where students and faculty alike can continue to practice the joy (and, in the modern era, the necessity) of ongoing reinvention that is the ultimate preparation for life and work in 21st century America.

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