Much is at stake to define explicitly and to reassert the usefulness of a distinctively American liberal arts education. The liberal arts are under assault by those who, under the mantle of affordability and efficiency, would reject it for the immediate, but often temporary, benefit of higher education defined as job training. My own experience offers a definition for the 21st century, in fact, for any century, where economic uncertainty prevails. I was a German and philosophy double major. At first glance, what could be more useless? And yet, my professional life has proven such a conclusion wrong.
I have been — sometimes simultaneously — a military officer, a pre-collegiate teacher, administrator and coach. I founded an athletic team, developed a major center at a prestigious research university, acted as a senior consultant to the U.S. Department of State with diplomatic status, served as a corporate officer at two publicly traded companies and now serve as president of Dickinson College. For none of these careers did I ever study formally or take a class.
I gained competency through independent reading, experience and observation. I appreciated that the breadth of knowledge and the depth of cognitive skill that my undergraduate courses in social science, political science, art and science prepared me for any field of professional pursuit. I was prepared for professional chance. I knew how to ask the right questions, how to gather information, how to make informed decisions, how to see connections among disparate areas of knowledge, how to see what others might miss, how to learn quickly the basics of a profession, how to discern pertinent information from that which is false or misleading, how to judge good, helpful people from those who wish you ill. All of this I gathered in a useful liberal education — in and out of the classroom — and in an intense residential life where experimentation with citizenship and social responsibility were guiding principles.
There were no formal, discrete courses to learn these habits of mind and action — no courses devoted to brain exercises, critical-thinking skills, leadership and citizenship; rather, professors and staff were united in all interactions to impress upon students day after day, year after year a liberal arts learning environment that was intellectually rigorous and defining. This was contextual learning at its fullest deployment. We absorbed and gradually displayed ultimately useful knowledge and skill not in a studied manner, but discretely and naturally. Time after time in my various careers, I applied these liberal arts skills to solve materially wider-world problems. And most important, except for my military service and my college presidency, none of my jobs existed before I assumed them. My useful education has enabled me to maximize opportunity within highly fluid and changing employment rhythms. As I now face another job transition in my life, I go forward with confidence that something appropriate will develop. I have no concrete plans and I like it that way. I know I am prepared on the basis of my liberal arts education to maximize chance. Something will develop. Something that probably doesn’t yet exist.
I am not alone in my appreciation of the liberal arts. Those of privilege have appreciated liberal education historically. It has contributed to their access and hold on power and influence. Their sons and daughters, generation after generation, have attended liberal arts institutions without hesitation. There is no job training in their educational landscape. It would be tragic if all the new and previously underserved populations now having access to higher education missed the opportunity for their turn at leadership and influence simply because of the outspoken — arguably purposeful — dismissal of the liberal arts as “useless,” often by those who received a liberal arts education themselves and intend nothing less for their own children.