Against the Grain: Liberal Arts in the 21st Century

Rebecca Chopp, President, Swarthmore College <br> Faculty Lecture, October 25, 2012

Rebecca Chopp

President Rebecca Chopp gave a lecture this fall entitled, "Against the Grain: Liberal Arts in the 21st Century," with an introduction by Associate Provost and Associate Professor of Art History Patricia Reilly. A post-lecture discussion is also included.

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This afternoon I want to share with you some of the research I have been conducting on the future of the liberal arts. My overall project considers liberal arts in a global context. I hope you noticed the Web story last week featuring Mira Seo '95, who has been appointed to the new liberal arts college Yale-National University of Singapore. About her shift to Singapore from the University of Michigan, Seo said, "It's so intriguing for me to be on the frontier where the liberal arts is expanding, not contracting."[1]

Fortunately for my own research project, last year the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation supported my collaborative effort with Dan Weiss, who is currently president of Lafayette and soon to be president of Haverford. Our goal was to bring together presidents of liberal arts colleges and other leaders in higher education to explore the future of liberal arts education in America and the responsibility of liberal arts colleges to the future of education around the world. To begin, we convened a number of presidents of selective liberal arts colleges to deliver papers on topics to what we imagined would be a small audience composed of a few faculty members, some foundation professionals, and perhaps a few more presidents. We were astonished that more than 200 presidents, faculty, professional staff, board members, and graduate students in higher education attended.

Now we are editing a book for Johns Hopkins Press, which consists of chapters based on the presentations at the conference. The ideas I share today are drawn from my chapter of the book, which looks specifically at how we make the case for liberal arts in the United States, given the challenges in the current environment. I will attempt to suggest how we might counteract what Mira Seo described as the "contraction" of the liberal arts. I will be delighted to talk further about the Johns Hopkins Press book or my broader project during the question and answer period after this talk.

Here is a surprising fact I stumbled upon in my research to develop a contemporary rationale for liberal arts-15 of the top 25 liberal arts colleges all have presidents who have spent the majority of their careers in R1 universities. Why have so many of us shifted from being provosts and deans at research universities to serving as presidents of selective liberal arts colleges?

When I ask other presidents, the response is almost always the same: Liberal arts colleges represent the ideal for undergraduate education. Despite the fact that they had job opportunities at R1s, most presidents who took part in my informal survey remarked upon the fact that if they were going to live the 24/7 work week of a president, they wanted to do so supporting what they considered to be the best educational model in the world. All of us noted that we want to lead institutions where the student is front and center, and faculty are dedicated to working with students. My colleagues and I also noted with appreciation that staff are dedicated and engaged members of our vibrant communities. I can summarize quite simply: We presidential "immigrants" believe in the residential liberal arts college model.

At the risk of putting words in the mouths of my fellow presidents, I propose that there are three compelling, interrelated principles of residential liberal arts education that influenced many of us to devote our careers to liberal arts colleges. These principles constitute what I will call the 20th-century case for the liberal arts:

First, critical thinking, rather than mastery of technical or codified knowledge, is the heart and soul of a liberal arts education. Critical thinking requires that teachers encourage students to refine their capacity for analytic thinking; ask difficult questions and formulate responses; evaluate, interpret, and synthesize evidence; make clear, well-reasoned arguments; and develop intellectual agility. Critical thinking is not only good for the individual but also beneficial for society-the common good flourishes through an ongoing expansion of intellectual capital that is both self-critical and innovative.

Second, residential liberal arts colleges cultivate a moral character and civic responsibility in students in terms of their individual choices and their contribution to the common good. Moral character combined with the development of critical thinking creates capacities in the individual for what John Dewey liked to call associative living.[2] An education that cultivates the responsible expression of individual freedoms-in the context of nurturing the common good-is essential to strengthening democratic communities.

Third, using knowledge and virtue to improve the world is the ultimate aim of an education that serves individual and communal freedom. The liberal arts educates people to serve the world through multiple expressions, styles, and practices. These may include theater or the arts, economic analysis, scientific discovery, judicial inquiry, the development of social policy, or historical interpretation-and, increasingly, more than one of these. In this tradition, individual flourishing is defined as the pursuit of one's passions but also as service to others.  

These three principles serve as a sort of 20th-century liturgy for the importance of the liberal arts. Yet despite our faith in these principles, residential liberal arts colleges are increasingly criticized to the point that we are in danger of being dismissed. I am concerned that we must make a more credible, compelling, and astute presentation of our mission lest our admissions, philanthropy, and federal funding be damaged-and lest we forsake entirely our once-admired reputation as the gold standard for undergraduate education in our country. Even more critical than my fear for the survival of residential liberal arts colleges is my concern about what will be lost in this country if more of our residential liberal arts colleges disappear or become "reformed" in work-force training programs.

I believe that that there is enormous depth, innovation, and substance in our schools, and on this basis we can-and should-expand the case for the liberal arts. In this presentation, I want to make that case by focusing on both the societal and communal as well as the individual good that the liberal arts serve.  I will suggest that our best case is to educate boldly against the grain of current practices in the United States and to present alternative visions of knowledge, community, and anthropology, by which I mean the individual quest for meaning and purpose. In sum, if residential liberal arts colleges once served the social compact between education and the United States by shaping the meritocracy and, increasingly, expanding democracy, now we should serve as utopia-realist communities that are decidedly countercultural. In the words of Walter Benjamin, "we should brush history against the grain."[3]

Challenges, Changes, Critics

Today's critics cite a long list of issues and pressures facing higher education. Some critics have concluded that the very sustainability of the liberal arts is at stake and predict that the demise of our form of education is around the next technological, financial, or demographic corner. After enjoying a long period of tremendous stability, we now confront the twin storms of profound structural challenges as well as the widely shared public critique of higher education. 

The challenges are many, but let me mention two-finances and technology-that illustrate the structural challenges and relate to issues of public credibility. Our financial model is unsustainable in terms of continuing our rate of tuition increases and the assumption of large endowment returns. Our failures-so far-either to curb our tuition increases or to explain them satisfactorily has damaged our credibility.

Higher education, perhaps most especially that provided by selective liberal arts colleges, is expensive. From 1988 to 2008 inflation-adjusted median family income increased by about 9 percent. During the same period inflation-adjusted tuition and fees at public four-year institutions increased by 128 percent, and increased 82 percent at private institutions.[4] We can certainly debate the numbers and the rationale behind the numbers, but we can't debate that these numbers-and the increasing inability of the middle class to pay out of pocket for selective schools-is hurting the credibility of our institutions. Worth every dollar? Of course. Able to continue this kind of cost escalation? Absolutely not.

Higher education is also experiencing great change and challenge through technology. Technology, as expensive as it is to provide and support, is bringing substantive change in how we think about our basic educational practices. But no matter how far technology advances, most of us in the liberal arts believe that education still requires real human interaction. I worry that the digital environment weakens civil discourse when it tempts us away from the hard work of developing face-to-face communities. We do not know where the ever-expanding technology frontier will take us, but we cannot ignore this challenge.  

My point is not the rightness or wrongness of these challenges and how we face them. My point is that in light of these challenges, we have yet to make a compelling case as to why and how a liberal arts education remains relevant and, in fact, invaluable in addressing the challenges of our times and expanding the opportunities within them. If one firestorm has to do with these profound structural challenges, the other contemporary issue has to do with the widespread public critique of the liberal arts.

Public critique of liberal arts education tends to fall into two related categories. The first asserts that education should be focused on job training, job procurement, and long-term financial security for students. Indeed, since the mid-1980s, most parents and prospective students indicate that the main purpose of education is to find a high-paying job and provide financial stability.[5] Once the quest for a certain salary becomes paramount, higher education becomes job training in its mission and practices.

The second critique follows from the first. Liberal arts education is a hopelessly romantic endeavor; designed to give privileged students cultivated tastes for an outdated, elite life under the guise of educating leaders. Rather than seeing education as a human-development endeavor that appreciates and sustains human culture while supporting the common good, education is seen as a leisurely commodity for individuals who, by virtue of family or business connections, are already assured of a high station in life.

In sum, then, the prevailing public critique suggests that liberal arts education is, plainly speaking, too expensive in terms of its cost and too impractical in terms of the experience it provides. In evaluating whether college is worth the cost, skeptics conclude that the sticker price is not justified because the relative returns on investment do not directly translate into specific training or expertise.

One effect of this critique is the academic equivalent of global warming on the Arctic permafrost: We are seeing the disappearance of small liberal arts colleges in the United States. A recent article in Liberal Education followed up on 212 liberal arts colleges that were the focus of a 1990 study. Twenty years later, only 130 of those colleges still meet the criteria of a liberal arts college-a 39 percent decline. According to the article, only a handful have closed; the rest have adopted a more preprofessional or vocational curriculum while still calling themselves liberal arts colleges.[6] As Victor Ferrell notes in Liberal Arts at the Brink, of the 223 self-identified liberal arts colleges in the United States, vocational majors have increased to 29.1 percent. Only 10 residential liberal arts colleges graduate no vocational majors, while 55 percent graduate nearly half of their students with vocational majors.[7]

These realities add to my serious concern that we are equating undergraduate education with work-force training and ignoring the concept of education for cultivating community, fulfilling one's obligation as a citizen, and even for living interesting and satisfying lives. I am also extremely concerned that this tendency will contribute to a confining of knowledge, learning, teaching, and research to codified or "applied" knowledge. One of the most serious political and cultural issues of our day, I believe, is the eradication of the liberal arts approach in education.

Being Proactive about the Liberal Arts

In response to these twin storms of challenge and critique, defenders of the liberal arts have offered some eloquent apologias or philosophical and historical defenses. Books such as Andrew Delbanco's College: What It Was, Is and Should Be address issues and pressures on liberal education. Delbanco also defends its importance for economic prosperity, for an inclusive democratic citizenship, and for the capacity of what Jefferson called "the pursuit of happiness."[8]

But, sadly, such responses are largely ignored by the public (perhaps liturgies are only powerful to the true believers) and, at least in my judgment, fail to capture the energy, excellence, and dynamism that exists at Swarthmore and many of our peer institutions. The case for the liberal arts, in my opinion, needs to be reframed to suggest not only how well we serve individual students but also how we act as a counterforce against a culture that is commodifying knowledge and projecting a view of community and anthropology that is reductionist and dangerous.

Based on the amazing programs and opportunities in our midst, certainly at Swarthmore, I believe that we should:

  • First, expand our definition of critical thinking to explain how it is nurtured and learned, and how students and faculty engage together in knowledge design through the dynamic interactions of teaching, learning, and scholarship. Our task is to oppose any attempt to constrain and define knowledge in one dominant mode. Instead, we should affirm forms of knowledge design that include contemplative, experiential, and research methodologies, and seek to embrace newer forms. I call this critical thinking knowledge design in the context of the fullness of knowledge.
  • Second, extend the distinct role our campuses play as intentional communities within the broader public, especially as we focus on educating students in the practical virtues of building inclusive, sustainable, and civil democratic communities and on cultivating the next generation of ethical leaders. Given the changes and challenges in our country and around the globe, there has never been a more pressing need to envision communities that are diverse and inclusive, that are sustainable, and that combine individual freedom and a commitment to the common good. This is a utopian as well as a practical quest. It should be based on a realistic engagement of our communities with the "big problems" of the day.
  • Third, envision clearly and forcefully a vision of anthropology that is about the meaning and purpose of life through wonder, practical wisdom, service to others, and what Jefferson called "happiness" in one's career, in one's community, and in one's personal life. No matter if you are a banker or an artist, a teacher or an activist, one's life is meaningful in and through one's work, service, and inner life, not because of the income you receive. This intentional focus on the cultivation of individual character is a long tradition in the liberal arts. It is, however, revolutionary in our current context.


The Fullness of Knowledge

In the 21st century, knowledge, understanding, information, teaching, learning, and research are expanding to include both the disciplinary knowledge of the 20th century and the porous networks and social learning that are involved in interdisciplinary, problem-based, and community-based models of knowledge.

I find it exciting to watch the myriad ways in which this expansion of knowledge, research, learning, and teaching is taking place, where our students and faculty are participating in what might be broadly called critical thinking as knowledge design: the expansion of analytical and synthetic thinking through intellectual agility, creativity, and innovation, especially in collaborative settings.

Swarthmore has always been a leader in critical and innovative teaching, learning, and research. Through our Honors Program, the flexibility of our curriculum, and other high-impact-learning approaches, this is indeed one of our most distinguishing characteristics. During our strategic-planning process, we discovered that our practices are expanding in incredible ways and my own understanding evolved from the metaphor of critical thinking as honing the skill of thinking in the context of disciplinary mastery to a metaphor of critical thinking as "knowledge design" in the fullness of knowledge. Can we imagine our college as a series of design studios or spaces and places in which knowledge is invented, remixed, and performed? Can we approach teaching and learning as a fluid act-a kind of jazz improvisation where everyone knows generally the direction you're headed but no one knows exactly how you're going to get there or precisely how it's going to end.

To encourage this fullness of knowledge, we will have to develop creative ways to structure traditional and new forms of faculty work while also making it easier for students to integrate many forms of learning to better navigate the curriculum. We will have to stretch or make flexible our institutional structures and culture to match the forms of social and participatory learning, teaching, and knowledge creation that will dominate the 21st century. Drawing upon a concept developed by Saskia Sassen, a sociologist who studies globalization and international migration, I have argued elsewhere that we might think of educational institutions more along the lines of the fluid, flexible, open-ended structures of what she calls a "global city" rather than the fixed silos of the bureaucratic industrial-like structures that dominated so much of the 20th-century academy.[9]

Let me be clear: Even as we affirm the fullness of knowledge, we need to maintain our time-tested traditions in scholarship, teaching, and learning. More than ever, we need to encourage a view of knowledge that supports creativity, agility, and problem solving even as it encourages the deep interpretation of basic research, artistic creation, and intellectual contemplation. We should boldly support, claim, and represent a countercultural view of knowledge, research, learning, and teaching.

Creating Utopian Communities

The second component of a compelling narrative should claim residential education as a powerful way to model and cultivate new forms of community. We who live in these institutions understand that the intense coexistence, collision, and even comingling of curricula and extracurricular aspects can transform the lives of students as they live in and learn to cultivate a flourishing community.

By all measures, living full time within a community that is devoted to human flourishing has the power to shape our students' moral character and sense of social responsibility. As they face the intellectual challenges of sustaining and cultivating a community of artists, engineers, sociologists, politicians, activists, and athletes on a daily basis, students find new talents and skills. They also learn that it takes many multifaceted persons to create a community, with values that are inherited from tradition and remade through new decisions every day. No other type of higher education in our nation teaches students to develop the self and to cultivate community. And yet in contemporary America, these lessons might be among the most imperative to learn.

I believe that our country is in desperate need of what the liberal arts can offer in terms of cultivating new forms of community. A serious crisis-deeply linked to the failure to find common ground-is leading us to lose faith in our leaders, our democratic institutions, our increasingly polarized communities, and our long-held sense of the common good. Current practices of democratic community such as tolerance, respect for others, and civil debate are becoming anemic, rendering them unable to provide the robust support that a thriving society needs. Just as knowledge must be free to shift to a participatory model, freedom in the social and moral sphere must shift from the quest of the consumer to the development of intentional community. When it comes to our values and our ability to cultivate moral character and social responsibility, we are and should be utopian-realist communities-an accomplishment that should be publically lauded as one of our greatest contributions to society.

Despite the challenges we all experience, there are creative practices on which to build. For example, many liberal arts colleges are renewing efforts to build more intentional communities. The selective liberal arts colleges lead the country in providing financial aid to members of diverse groups-not only providing opportunity to individuals, but also strengthening diverse and inclusive communities. Likewise, Swarthmore and other colleges are focusing more on sustainable communities, doing all we can to educate the next generation of our graduates to address issues such as climate change and alternative energy. This year, as part of the President's Climate Committee, we will adopt a Climate Action Plan. Our plan will call for, among other things, educating and engaging everyone in the community toward the goal of reducing our carbon footprint.

I believe that Swarthmore is distinct in its ability to create an intentional community-one that can serve as a utopian vision in the 21st century. We have a deep-rooted sense of values embraced by our alumni as well as our campus community. As "humanistic" interpretations of our Quaker tradition, those values represent what we hold in common and guide our community practices. As we work through the campus master-planning exercise, I am amazed at how we have structured our values in residential housing philosophy. For instance, we don't have freshman residence halls, believing that intermingled classes are more sociologically robust and do more to serve our diverse community. If people with genuinely different perspectives and backgrounds live together quite literally, utopian practice as well as utopian vision can develop.

Another example is CAPS, which unlike almost all other counseling programs, prefers to support students in self-discovery and wellness rather than take a short-term approach. Likewise, our many students and faculty engage in programs in the Lang Center that focus on civic engagement and social responsibility. Our distinctiveness, at least compared to other campuses I have served, is that we derive strong humanistic values from our Quaker traditions and use them to guide engagement and action. I believe that our practices and our values in community are in fact a counter narrative regarding what constitutes real "community" in the dominant culture.

An Alternative Anthropology

Over the course of the last 30 years, our culture has stopped asking, "What is the purpose of life?" I can imagine all sorts of reasons why we no longer emphasize "big" or existential questions about the meaning and purpose of human life. Some might link such questions to a privileged knowledge class. The media and our orientation toward consumer goods have redefined life as an association with "brands" and consumption. Progressive religious movements, which often expressed these questions in public and private ways, have declined. Responding to pressure, education is now more about numbers and jobs than values and meaning. There is confusion inside the academy and in the wider world about the meaning and role of the humanities.

Let me sketch out briefly how this lack of what I will call "attention" to the development of character is affecting students. In a 2010 New York Times article, the writer describes the dramatic changes in students' perspectives over the last 40 years: "Consider the change captured in the annual survey by the University of California, Los Angeles, of more than 400,000 incoming freshmen. In 1971, 37 percent responded that it was essential or very important to be "very well-off financially," while 73 percent said the same about "developing a meaningful philosophy of life." In 2009, the values were nearly reversed: 78 percent identified wealth as a goal, while 48 percent were after a meaningful philosophy."[10]

The role of liberal arts in helping the student to "know thyself" is a classic role. Indeed in the classic defense of the liberal arts I cited earlier, Delblanco argues that liberal arts education ought to be about Jefferson's notion of pursuing happiness, Cardinal Henry Newman's sense of contemplation, and Walt Whitman's concept of loafing as in "I loaf and invite my soul."[11]

Our own Scott Gilbert spoke eloquently in last year's baccalaureate address of how liberal education allows wonder to emerge out of both science and religion. Gilbert echoes Anthony Kronman, former dean of Yale Law School, who said, "The human study of the world thus both begins and ends in wonder, and the wonder it produces is a state we enjoy for its own sake and independently of the utility of the discoveries that fill us with astonishment-independently of what these discoveries are good for."[12]

I find a critique of dominant models of anthropology emerging in many places in our community. Barry Schwartz's and Ken Sharpe's work on practical wisdom could well be summarized as a radical critique on a culture that belittles the quest to be wise. Our students, supported by deans and faculty, explore the fluidity of identity rather than a fixed category of identity that was popular in previous generations of students and scholarship.

More than other types of educational institutions, liberal arts colleges provide what Maxine Greene calls "landscapes of learning."[13] Colleges like Swarthmore teach what it is to stand in awe of a Mozart requiem or a Balinese Gamelan performance, a contemporary sculpture of Richard Serra or the sculptures of Cai Guo-Qiang to appreciate the grace and skill that music, art, theater, soccer, and fencing require. All these experiences contribute to the capacity to cultivate one's head, heart, body, and soul; to be curious about and compassionate toward others; and to live with passion and resilience. To be sure, liberal arts colleges want their graduates to be productive leaders in their fields and responsible leaders in their communities. But we also want our students (and faculty and staff) to enjoy, relish, and drink deeply of the wells of life. 

One personal story: I remember quite powerfully becoming acquainted with the art of Mark Rothko in college. I am from Kansas, a first-generation college student, and there were no paintings or other artwork in my house. I had never heard a term such as abstract expressionism; I never knew that meaning and feeling could be abstracted from representations. I had never even been exposed to language such as that. In a survey course on modern philosophy I stumbled upon the picture of a painting by Mark Rothko, with its bold, shimmery squares. I have no idea why Rothko's art spoke to me. With more intense colors than I had ever seen in my Kansas landscape, the proportionality was simply beautiful, the power was grace-filled, and the picture became an anchor for me at that time. Today I simply summon up certain of Rothko's paintings in my head to get a moment of contemplation in the midst of a hectic day. Life lived with Rothko as anchor grounds me in the immanence of meaning and purpose no matter if I am wrestling with budgets, making difficult personnel decisions, or just running from meeting to meeting. This quest for meaning and purpose may be a very traditional one that the liberal arts has always embraced, but within the context of today's culture it may well be the most utopian and the most radical aspect of our counter narrative.

In these remarks, I have attempted to describe the significant problems we face in the residential liberal arts community. Swarthmore will almost certainly fare better than most, but we won't be untouched and, more importantly, because of our intellectual, cultural, moral, and financial capacities, we must lead in making a compelling case for the liberal arts. I have attempted to reframe or evolve the 20th century case, by articulating our most compelling and fundamental contemporary characteristics-knowledge, community, and anthropology-based on the research, teaching, and learning I see going on at Swarthmore and at other schools.

In this historic moment, the sky truly may be falling-at least nationally-on our type of education, and much will be lost if we continue to transform liberal arts colleges into vocational programs or close them entirely. We have to choose to be quiet isolationists or bold revolutionaries. I hope we will choose the latter. If we represent our tradition and our current practices faithfully, we can become vital countercultural, utopian-realist communities that demonstrate and cultivate the pursuit of knowledge and human flourishing as it ought to be.

I ask you to join with me in articulating, publicly and boldly, a case for the liberal arts. We need not only presidents but also faculties, alumni, boards, staff members, and students to make, publicly and boldly, a new case for the liberal arts. Write op-eds and blogs, participate in public debates, talk to friends and neighbors, support legislation to strengthen education and increase financial aid in this country. Be a revolutionary, brush history against the grain, understand and articulate your life's work as supporting utopian-realist communities. Be-even in your quiet, unassuming ways-a bold revolutionary.

[1] "A Pioneer on a Liberal Arts Frontier,"  The Chronicle: Global, June 25, 2012, retrieved from

[2] John Dewey, "Creative Democracy: The Task Before Us," Debra Morris and Ina Shapiro, editors, John Dewey: The Political Writings (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1993).

[3] Walter Benjamin.  "Theses on the Philosophy of History," Illuminations. Translated by Harry Zohn. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968.

[4] "Trends in College Pricing," College Board Advocacy and Policy Center. (2011) retrieved from

[5] See, for instance, Kate Zernike, New York Times, Making College 'Relevant', January 3, 2010, retrieved from

[6] Vicki L. Baker, et. all, "Where Are They Now?  Revisiting Breneman's Study of LA Colleges," Liberal Education 98, no. 3 (Summer 2012).

[7] Victor E. Ferrall Jr.,  Liberal Arts at the Brink (New York: Harvard UP, 2011).

[8] Andrew Delbanco, College: What It Was, Is and Should Be (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012).

[9] Susan Frost and Rebecca Chopp, "The University as Global City:  A New Way of Seeing Today's Academy." Change 36, no. 2  (Mar-Apr 2004).

[10] Zernike, Making College 'Relevant.'

[11] Delbanco, What It Was, Is and Should Be.

[12] Kronman, Anthony T. Education's End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life. Binghamton, (NY: Vail-Ballou Press, 2007), Print.

[13] Maxine Green, Landscapes of Learning (New York: Teachers College Press, 1978).