By Jonathan Meilaender
What’s the point of college? It is a question we should all ask ourselves, periodically, in order to avoid losing sight of our purpose amid a sea of worries over short-term problems. I recently promised to explain my own view of a better core curriculum. But I would like to expand the topic a little, because the reason I have for favoring a certain kind of core is closely related to a vision of what colleges—and specifically liberal arts colleges—should stand for.
The purpose of a liberal arts college like Saint Vincent begins with the liberal arts. “Liberal,” as I have noted before, comes from the Latin “liber,” or “free,” and is used here to denote an education suitable to a free person. This notion first arose in ancient Greece, where “freedom” entailed participation in government. This education was the kind of education suitable for free citizens: usually a smaller class who ran the city-state (in Athens, for example). It did not include women or slaves; they were not “free” and consequently not expected to govern. It was therefore rather a narrowly available education.
Today, of course, freedom is spread far more broadly: all Americans are expected to participate in government to some degree, at least to vote and to discuss public issues intelligently. Therefore, everyone should receive the kind of education necessary to do so wisely. We don’t even need to call it “liberal arts education”; we could call it “education for democracy,” or something like that. But it certainly involves those disciplines that make it possible to form an educated opinion on political issues; or, to put it more precisely, that knowledge needed to find the truth.
Ignorance is the true enemy of freedom. Imagine that I must choose between candidate X and candidate Y. If I act on the basis of inaccurate or limited information, my choice is not really “free”; the limits of my knowledge constrain me to make a choice that I might not have selected with a fuller understanding of the situation. Partial ignorance is often the worst. Today, we do have a very widespread notion that everyone should participate in politics and that everyone has a duty to inform him or herself on the issues. But we do not give citizens the tools to form good judgements. So people find a slick graphic with clever words and use it to form the basis of their views, without a clue as to whether those words are true or false. Thus people become not merely prey to their own ignorance, but prey, also, to the words of demagogues, who play upon their ignorance until whatever skills of logical analysis a person possessed are utterly lost beneath a mountain of interlocking lies.
What constitutes an education for democracy? The basics of philosophy; the principles of political science; good writing and speaking skills (in order to engage with others); preferably another language (for the political community does not include America alone); an understanding of logic; and basic scientific literacy. This foundation frees a citizen from ignorance in democratic things; not enough to build a career in politics, maybe, but enough to distinguish truth from falsehood.
Every citizen needs this foundation. It is essential. But who provides it? Ideally, I think, not liberal arts colleges. In a better America, students would receive this preparation in high school, freeing them from the need to attend college (today, too many people are forced to get a degree simply to find a decent job) or permitting them to engage in deeper studies if they do attend.
For the time being, though, many people will not receive this education in high school, which puts the burden on higher education. But it is mistaken to assume that all colleges bear this burden equally. Many students attend public universities or lower-ranked private colleges (many of which do call themselves liberal arts colleges) in order to pursue a non-liberal arts major. These colleges have a particular burden to ensure that their students receive a democratic education, because most of their students will not have another opportunity to acquire it.
In practice, Saint Vincent is in that category. But that category is a very awkward place to be right now for a college that hopes to survive in the long-term.
This is true for two reasons. First, even though SVC has a solid financial foundation and tolerably good enrollment considering the pandemic, the financial outlook for small liberal arts colleges is poor. Several have already closed due to Covid, and many others face serious financial issues. These colleges face such serious risk mostly because of their heavy reliance on tuition (or room and board) to generate funds. That means that enrollment determines financial stability. And a pandemic naturally reduces enrollment. But other factors have been doing the same for years.
For example, many are cutting liberal arts majors in favor of the sciences, mathematics, engineering, or even social sciences. Of course there is sometimes a fine line between “liberal arts” and “social sciences,” but core liberal arts disciplines like philosophy, English, politics, and languages are generally seeing cuts. This only makes the problem worse—it forces liberal arts colleges to compete directly with public universities, and keeps them from standing out among their private peers.
State-funded public universities with free or greatly reduced tuition already pose a challenge for private liberal arts colleges. Many students would rather save money than go to a private college. And, as noted, many people are forced to go to college simply to earn a degree in order to get a decent job, not because they have any serious interest in education or because they want to study the liberal arts. These people naturally lack an incentive to choose a more expensive, private, liberal arts college.
This problem becomes worse when public and private and even community colleges are practically indistinguishable. Small liberal arts colleges try to compete with public schools on the things that public schools do best: cheap prices, excellent facilities, and lots of good job-preparation majors. This, of course, makes it still harder to see why anyone wouldn’t pick the public school or the community college: if they’re both the same, but one is cheaper, pick the cheaper one. It also overlooks the main reason why someone would choose a liberal arts college: a good education.
The key to success for a liberal arts college is to stand out—and not just from state schools, but from other private schools, too. I remember, when choosing a college, that I was bombarded by advertisements from schools that all basically looked the same. They all had decently pretty campuses, about 1500 students, a good “faculty to student” ratio, wonderful “community,” perhaps a vague connection to some faith tradition, and middling academic stats. I put “community” in quotation marks because Saint Vincent advertises it too much. It’s a wonderful thing, but not a good selling point, because you can also find it at any other small liberal arts college. SVC has yet to find an identity that stands out. This is especially evident in some of the marketing I’ve seen. I don’t know what the college is trying to sell, except community, which is vague. The current slogan seems to be “Together, we rise,” which tells me nothing. The Catholic identity helps differentiate SVC, but is not always clearly communicated.
One of the best ways to stand out is an uncompromising commitment to academic excellence. Think about the private universities that stand out, even the small ones—the ones that don’t run any risk of falling prey to Covid. I mean places like Middlebury, Vassar, Skidmore, Bowdoin, Kenyon, Amherst, and so on. These places will survive because their reputations will continue to attract good students. And of course those students provide a financial return in the long run: they are likely to obtain prestigious, high-paying jobs, which makes them more likely to donate or to attract donors. These colleges don’t need to emphasize a liberal arts foundation in the same way as colleges that attract students who merely need a degree to get a job.
That brings us to the second half of the equation. The point of a liberal arts college is not to provide a foundation. Liberal arts colleges need to think about fulfilling their mission by providing, not a foundation in the liberal arts, but mastery—a real commitment to the liberal arts that permeates the institution. A foundation is a low goal, one that simply accepts the fact that institutions that should be providing it (like high schools and public universities) are not, and
therefore assumes that we need to pick up the slack. We should offer the basics to students who want and need them, but our calling is higher.
That means, for one thing, a small core, which may sound counterintuitive. But imagine that you’re a student who really cares about the liberal arts. In that case, you already have interests, you probably already have a foundation, and you care about selecting courses that will make you a better citizen. And if you don’t have such a foundation? Well, you are perfectly free to take introductory courses. Much like Aristotle’s famous quote, “That which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it,” courses which are required and pre-determined do not draw much interest. People take them because they have to, not because they want to.
Rigid core curricula hurt good students. I’m almost tempted to recommend the approach used by Amherst College, because I know that it would have appealed to me: no credit distribution requirements whatsoever. I would have enjoyed dividing up my sixty-odd core credits without restriction. But some standards are needed: for example, no one should graduate without knowing a foreign language, and I do not expect every student to fulfill commitments like these without guidance. So flexible standards are essential. A good core model should make judicious use of “demonstrated competencies.” You can write a solid essay? Good, show us, and you don’t need to take language and rhetoric. You are fluent in a foreign language? Good, take a test, and you don’t need to learn another one. Naturally, this does not work for every field of study, but it is frequently plausible. Another way to achieve the same result is to include credit requirements for different disciplines, but permit students to fulfill them with any class from that major (naturally this involves eliminating overly simple classes). It’s less an imposed burden and more of a fail-safe. The point is to attract good students and to treat them like good students.
It also means a stronger emphasis on liberal arts departments. Focusing on trendy majors may drive up short-term enrollment, but it will hurt in the long run, because, as described above, it makes the college indistinguishable from every other small college. We want programs that stand out: maybe we have a focus on modern languages (and to do that we need at least Russian and Arabic in addition to all the ones we offer). Or we have a journalism program that involves a semester-long internship with a Pittsburgh newspaper. Or a philosophy program that leads the nation in bioethics. Or a flagship Great Books program in some discipline. The precise choice doesn’t matter; what matters is the effort to stand out. And it means more funding for those programs, as well as the faculty to teach them.
Incidentally, this is not a condemnation of athletics, or even spending money on athletics. Athletics can serve as a fantastic addition to a liberal arts education; they teach plenty of good traits. Many strong students enjoy participating in a sport (like most of The Review’s staff). That said, small liberal arts colleges sometimes overestimate the degree to which shiny new athletics
facilities are actually going to attract new students; this temptation is another sign of an effort to follow the crowd. Strong academic programs and facilities should come first.
Creating a college like this is not necessarily easy. It involves short-term risk in the form of higher costs and possible lower enrollment. It means establishing higher academic targets for your incoming freshman class, it means spending more on faculty, it means channeling funds to merit scholarships, and so on. It also requires an effort to emphasize academic excellence in promotional material (instead of, say, community). And it means the right kind of curriculum. All of these things do involve cost or short-term enrollment losses. But it is hard to see how else small colleges will survive, because the risk of doing nothing is even higher.
This approach may spur one obvious criticism: isn’t it a bit elitist? It does involve becoming more selective. But I dispute the notion that selectivity equals elitism. Elitism implies some kind of undue or unfair favoring. It isn’t unfair to favor students who seem most interested in and best suited to a liberal arts education, especially if merit leads to scholarships (thus allowing students with fewer financial resources to compete more evenly—actually, SVC already does well here). Indeed, if it is elitist to maintain strong academic standards, then life itself is elitist—anything worth achieving only comes through hard work. And the goal here is not exclude anyone with interest and work ethic: instead, the goal is to attract precisely those people, and academic metrics are only one tool in doing so.
My goal here is to provide a theoretical principle, not to explain the details of what Saint Vincent ought to do. Naturally, I think that the college does not yet exhibit the fuller commitment to liberal arts I would prefer to see, but this whole article would be pointless if not for the fact that the college offers an academic community with a genuine love of education. I am confident that both faculty and administration want this college to be as strong as possible, and I am confident that they recognize Saint Vincent’s unique mission as a Christian liberal arts college. That is why I want to see this college thrive in the future—and why I hope it will embrace its calling more fully. A liberal arts college is oriented toward truth in a special and public way. Our purpose is not to be “just like everyone else.” We are not just about providing jobs; we are not just about filling up majors. We must educate for freedom.