When Jeffrey Freyman, a professor of political science at Transylvania and the seminar moderator, finally made his statement about method and the liberal arts, our discussions seemed to me to have reached an obvious impasse. Stuck in an either/or argument, all we could agree on at that point was that our liberal arts colleges exemplified the liberal arts because of how we taught our students rather than what we taught them. We all aimed at providing students with transformative experiences in and out of the classroom that would help them to see the world in deeper and more sophisticated ways.
But what did that really mean? To me the most disappointing turn in the seminar was what followed. Just when we should have recognized our dead end and turned to the harder work of rethinking what a liberal arts college can be or do, the majority of the seminar participants simply embraced an easy consensus and retreated into an “us versus them” mentality: “We” want our students to resist conformity; “they”—the forces of political correctness and capitalism—want conformity. “We” are misunderstood, poorly organized and underrepresented on university boards; “they” wield the power of the purse. “We” need to make our way of doing liberal arts an attractive product; “they” count on the fact that students don’t know what or how to choose.
True or not, these sentiments missed the mark. Simply disparaging the marketplace, or trying to lure or trick the inhabitants of that marketplace into appreciating what “we” know is best for them, is futile. And it’s a touch hypocritical to revile conformity but then warn, as one participant did, against “those on our campuses who we know don’t truly believe in the liberal arts.”
In the end I was heartened—and, to be honest, surprised—to find Susquehanna cited in one of our final readings as an example of a third way, “a new paradigm for undergraduate study.” Richard M. Freeland, former president of Northeastern University, notes how “this new approach builds bridges between the realm of the intellect and the arenas of action and practice” by mixing liberal with professional studies in service of a “practice-oriented education.” It’s a risky endeavor, and still very much an experiment. Yet only by taking such chances, and welcoming real disagreement on campus between faculty and the administration—and even within departments—over the educational value and soundness of new initiatives, programs and policies, will Susquehanna earn a place among the leaders of 21st century liberal arts education.
No doubt this augurs more and increasingly heated arguments on our campus, both now and in the foreseeable future. That’s what academics do. But I wouldn’t want it any other way at this liberal arts college.