Friday, November 20, 2015

Colleges and the Liberal Arts Ethos

I have spent a lot of time in the past year visiting college campuses with my daughter.  She is a senior in high school and will be making a college choice soon.  She/we visited all kinds of institutions: elite private schools, liberal arts colleges, Christian colleges, and public universities.  My daughter is a humanities person.  She will probably major in something like English or history.  If she dabbles in the social sciences she will probably pursue anthropology or sociology. She is also very perceptive about the vibe that she gets from the schools she visits.  She does not merely want a school with good history or humanities programs, she wants a school with a humanities ethos that pervades the campus.

Some examples:

A few months ago, on back to back days, we visited two very prestigious private universities located in the Eastern United States.  The first institution, despite its reputation as a world class research university, presented itself, first and foremost, as an undergraduate liberal arts college.  The admission office and tour guides noted that many of the professional schools, including the graduate school, were located in remote parts of the campus.  The layout of this campus exuded a sense of community rooted in ideas and questions about what it means to be human.  The departments of History, English, African-American studies, and Philosophy were all located at the center of campus. When my daughter told some of the current students that she was thinking about majoring in English or history she was greeted with enthusiasm.

The second institution--another world class research university--offered a very different feel.  Very little was said about the humanities and liberal arts.  Instead, the presentations we attended stressed professional programs--business and engineering.  When we talked to some folks at an off-campus residential community, we learned that none of the residents were majoring in humanities-related fields.  I think my daughter may have even been embarrassed to tell people on campus that she was interested in the humanities.

This Fall we also attended a few Christian colleges.  One of these colleges had a strong tradition of liberal arts and humanities education.  During her evening in the dorms she met several humanities majors.  The next day, during presentations, tours, and classes she attended, she was deeply impressed by the way the questions raised by the humanities-oriented disciplines animated everything that happened in the curriculum of this institution. (And I should add that this college is not defined as a "liberal arts college" by the Carnegie rankings).  My daughter is not sure if she wants to attend a Christian college, but if she does, she wants a school where there is a strong commitment to the integration of faith and learning.  She is aware that such integration is very difficult, if not impossible, without robust support for the humanities--history, English, theology, philosophy, languages, etc...  She definitely felt it at this place.

The other college that she visited tends to attract more students interested in professional majors.  The humanities programs are solid, but the humanities faculty spend a lot of time having to fight for the importance of the humanities.  During the course of the visit, a few students asked my daughter about her intended major.  In every case, when my daughter said she was interested in history or English, her new acquaintances asked her if she wanted to teach.  When my daughter said she was not interested in teaching, her hosts responded: "Then what are you going to do with that [degree]?" She also sensed that the admissions staff did not know how to talk about the humanities.  My daughter came home from the visit wondering if she could find any conversation partners or friends with the same interests.  Everyone she met, it seemed, was majoring in athletic training, nursing or business.  I told her that she certainly would meet people at this school who had the same passions and interests as she did, but in the end what my daughter sensed was correct--this school did not have a humanities or liberal arts ethos.  And she felt it.

In fact, the response my daughter receives when she tells someone on campus that she wants to major in history has become a sort of litmus test for her.

We still don't know where my daughter will end up next year.  But I have enjoyed seeing these various colleges and universities through her eyes.  I have learned A LOT in the process.