Investigating the Future of the Liberal Arts

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Swarthmore’s Strategic Directions recommends the creation of an Institute for Liberal Arts to “encourage faculty participating, time and space for reflection, delight in discovery, and further deepening of one’s knowledge to exemplify the liberal arts” at Swarthmore, in the United States, and worldwide.

“We are at this funny moment in our history,” President Chopp explained in an interview with The Daily Gazette. “There’s a lot of criticism in the country about the viability of liberal arts for financial and intellectual reasons at the same time there is a lot of international interest in the liberal arts. At the same time, the plan explains that “higher education on the whole has done very little generative thinking about its future.”

President Chopp explained that the consensus in higher education is that the liberal arts will face “big changes ahead – at least financially.” As the plan describes, the Institute will examine those challenges and how best to react to them, answering questions like “what will demographic shifts in student populations mean in 2030? Is our business model sustainable? Can residential colleges serve their alumni better over their lifetimes?”

Through that Institute, Swarthmore positions itself not only as a place for alumni and faculty to discuss those questions, but also for higher education as a whole to discuss the future of the liberal arts, improving the visibility and viability of the College and transforming it into a “destination for scholars outside Swarthmore,” as the plan described it.

The Institute will be the occasion for seminars on topics relating to the liberal arts, the sponsor of scholarly production and publication, student-faculty collaborations and symposia, reading groups, semester long workshops, and visiting scholars.

The plan does not specifically recommend a physical space for the institute. However, the “imaginative essay” entitled “Institute for the Future of the Liberal Arts, Report of the Executive Director, June 30, 2024,” describes the institute as having “moved to a converted College-owned home on Chester Road in early 2018). Additionally, it suggests that the “proposed inn, restaurant, and retail spaces on the edge of campus” might serve the purpose of having a space for nondisciplinary-specific discussions among faculty about the liberal arts, although this would not replace the Institute itself.

Adam Rosenberg ’13, who sat on the Knowledge, Teaching, and Learning Working Group, said “I’m particularly pleased that the Institute for the Liberal Arts has made the final plan, as I think it would make a valuable addition to the campus and embodies a lot of what the college is about. Of course, it could use
some more definition and focus, but that comes as part of its formation.”

Plans for the institute do not readily lend themselves to an existing committee. However, in the coming weeks President Chopp and Provost Stevenson will be meeting with faculty and the Council on Educational Policy, which is headed by the provost and includes six faculty members and three students.  President Chopp says that she would “like to get it started “relatively soon in a very small way. I think it’s the kind of thing we’ll work on and evaluate.”

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