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.
Last December, President Rebecca Chopp and Haverford President Daniel Weiss, along with consultant Susan Frost, published Remaking College: Innovation and the Liberal Arts. A collection of essays written by current college presidents and leaders in higher education, it argues for the relevance of the liberal arts in a rapidly changing society.
Despite public skepticism, contributors to Remaking College believe firmly in the importance of the liberal arts to students today.
“I think the issues that the public struggles with is relevant. Why would I send my daughter to Swarthmore to major in English? Maybe she should go to the state university in Minnesota and major in economics or accounting or physical therapy or pre-med. […] Those are the kinds of questions we hear all the time,” Weiss said.
Both presidents see the need to better communicate the strengths of liberal arts education.
“The value of [a liberal] education is pretty uncontested […]. We have not done a good job of talking about that to parents and students,” Chopp said.
Remaking College grew organically from a conference that Chopp and Weiss led earlier in the year which Chopp said targeted “all the challenges in liberal arts…and all the changes.” She expected about fifty participants and was blown away when closer to 250 signed up. As the conference progressed, presidents from various colleges requested that papers they had written be made into a book. When Chopp and Weiss asked for contributors, all but one agreed.
The book’s contributors share a desire to provide a defense for a liberal education at a time when more and more people question the usefulness of a liberal arts degree.
“The contributors are for the most part sitting presidents or other leaders, and so what I think is helpful is for people to see how those people are thinking about these issues […]. It shows by virtue of example that these people are thoughtful and that they live in the real world,” Weiss said.
Commenting on a topic marked by abstract rhetoric, Remaking College seeks to avoid murky arguments.
“This is the first book of its kind that is seeped in what is actually going on. Most of the other books that have sought to defend liberal arts education are kind of philosophical,” Chopp said.
While Weiss quickly pointed out that “the book isn’t really a debate” and praised its “complementarity,” there are points of disagreement in Remaking College. Most notable is the function of technology in the liberal arts. Chopp remarked that where some chapters focus on technology as a tool that “is going to change everything,” others present a more cautious view.
“I think there’s some real tension around technology,” Chopp said.
Weiss acknowledged these differences of opinion, adding that technology can facilitate collaboration among liberal arts colleges.
“It is the future, I’m sure,” Weiss said.
Remaking College focuses on a relatively small audience of people interested in higher education, but Weiss noted that it is accessible to a wider audience as well.
Chopp and Weiss are currently collaborating on a new book which will contain a similar defense of the liberal arts. It will target a broader audience of high school counselors, parents, legislators, and others interested in education.
“We will be really trying to explain what liberal arts is and why we think it is strongly relevant to life in the 21st century,” Chopp said.
Featured image courtesy of www.evolllution.com.