In keeping with its reputation as a leading liberal arts college, Swarthmore announced its intention to create a new Institute for the Liberal Arts in its strategic plan, which came out in December 2011. Barely a year later, the college has secured a grant of $250,000 from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations to see the Institute through its first two years.
One of the three stated goals of the Institute shows its aim is to keep the liberal arts education relevant and expand it at Swarthmore, in the United States and around the world in general. Philip Jefferson, Centennial Professor of Economics and a Committee Member of the Institute spoke about the need for such an institute, saying “The Institute will meet the need of having an advocate for the liberal arts. In recent years there has been a stress on instrumental learning and the role of liberal learning has been called into question. Having a place that will allow Swarthmore to project the values of a liberal arts education is extremely important.”
Jefferson spoke about the process of going from having a stated goal to actually procuring the grant. President Rebecca Chopp spoke to the Foundation and invited representatives to spend a day on campus, where they met and interacted with faculty and administrators alike. The visit included a dinner, during which attendees discussed the College and Foundation’s plans for the Institute’s future. Among the attendees were the Institute’s Committee members.
Jefferson also added that President Chopp deserved a great deal of credit for identifying the grant as a potential resource and acting on the opportunity quickly; he also commended the excellence of the college community that induced the Foundation to provide the grant.
As the Institute is starting up, it’s firing up the faculty and students with new offerings.
Jefferson described the experiences of the faculty: “It’s a very exciting venture which promises to enthuse the faculty in discussions that go across disciplinary boundaries. We’ve already started workshops and reading groups and there’s an energy that’s invigorating the community. The expectation is that this energy will continue to grow.” He expects the faculty’s experiences to inform the way that professors structure and teach their courses, directly impacting student life at Swarthmore.
The economics professor outlined the intended and expected impact on students. Besides providing more ways for students to work more closely with alumni, the Institution will allow for more non-traditional interactions with faculty, including extended opportunities for research and internships. He added that student learning would expand beyond the classroom and facilitate a way of learning that will be more suited to how people learn in the real world.
As part of this, the Institute has already hosted the Second Student Science Cafe, a symposium about Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind,” and interdisciplinary research on the financial crisis of 2008, among other initiatives.
Craig Earley ’16, who attended the second installment of the Symposium this past Sunday, shared his thoughts about the Institute and the Symposium. “The way I’ve always understood it, a liberal arts education is about genuinely learning rather than just consuming. The symposium this week helped to explore the ideas of Haidt’s book rather than just take them in. It gave me an idea of how to think about ideas critically, so that we can understand them and their broader context. The subject was fascinating enough, and hearing the panelists’ perspective on it was quite enlightening to me.”
On a concluding note, Jefferson voiced his and the other Committee members’ hopes for the new Institute, saying it will lead to new ways of learning, thinking and serving.