A fierce advocate for the Liberal Arts

About the time I graduated from Swarthmore College in 1967, Joni Mitchell penned and sang a song entitled “Big Yellow Taxi”, which has since been re-recorded by about 360 artists.  The famous lyric in the song we all know: “Don’t it all seem to go / you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.” Joni may have been singing about a famous old hotel in Hawaii, but when I heard about Rebecca Chopp leaving Swarthmore College, I immediately thought of those lyrics.

My son is now a senior at Swarthmore, so I have had the opportunity to get reacquainted with the college during the past several years, a period of time that largely coincides with President Chopp’s time there.  To me, our college’s 14th president should be remembered as a fierce advocate of a liberal arts education in a democratic society. The establishment of the Institute for the Liberal Arts during her tenure stands as a living testament to her passionate belief in the value of such an education.

Having graduated from the college nearly five decades ago, I can now look back and say unequivocally that that education was incredibly valuable to me, and served me in unbelievably good stead through graduate school and throughout my entire career.  And the values I learned at Swarthmore have stayed with me all those many years.

When I was at Swarthmore, our class worked itself into a tizzy over the college’s policy of in loco parentis, whereby the administration felt obliged to act as our parents while we were there.  We even agreed to abstain from giving to the college after graduation if the policy wasn’t changed.  It all seemed so important back then, while we seemed to take for granted the incredible education we were getting from our classes.

When Rebecca Chopp came to Swarthmore, I saw a visionary who was determined to have the college function as the extraordinary educational institution we all remember, and I, for one, always wanted her to stand up to confrontations that could disrupt, impede and prevent the constructive dialogue so important to the Quaker tradition of the college’s founders.  I would have applauded the college for signing her to a new five-year contract, and am sad the college will be losing her.  Swarthmore College’s loss is surely the University of Denver’s gain. My great hope is that the Board of Managers will be able to find someone comparable to Rebecca Chopp.

What we surely don’t want is what Joni Mitchell sang about: “They paved paradise / And put up a parking lot!”

Mickey Herbert is a member of the class of 1967.


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