No Frigate Like a Liberal Arts Education

John Churchill, Phi Beta Kappa Secretary

John Churchill, Phi Beta Kappa Secretary

In our college’s recent Phi Beta Kappa induction ceremony, we heard a stirring address from John Churchill, the chapter’s national secretary. Speaking in the reconstruction of Maryland’s 1676 colonial state house where we hold our proceedings each year, Churchill cited a range of authors, from Plato to Emily Dickinson to Yogi Berra, as he made a passionate defense of the liberal arts.

Churchill is concerned that our society, rather than embracing the vision of a well-rounded education, is running frantically in the other direction. Such wrong-way running is captured by a number of thinkers:

Recently, I have been much taken with a thought expressed by Francis Bacon, who  wrote: When a man runs the wrong way, the more active and swift he is, the further he will go astray.” You can find much the same thought in Descartes, or in Lewis Carroll’s account of the exchange between Alice and the Cheshire Cat. But my favorite version belongs to Yogi Berra,  who is credited with having observed, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’re likely to end up someplace else.” My worry is that American higher education may be headed down the wrong road.

Churchill labeled the wrong road in this case “First Job Syndrome.” Rather than thinking of education in the broadest sense, too many policymakers and pundits are trying to “vocationalize” it. Churchill mentioned the following examples:

–Kiplinger’s reports on the ten “worst” and ten “best” majors all favorable to vocationalism and hostile to the liberal arts and sciences.
–The recommendations in Florida about pricing differentials for academic programs in public universities based on “market-driven strategic demand.”
–The latest news from Coursera about how they intend to make credit possible.
–Pressures in California to use testing devices to reduce the backlog of students blocked from courses necessary to their degree programs.
–The erosion of teaching strength in the liberal arts and sciences.
–The retreat of states from the funding of public higher education.
–The threat that comes with the erosion of the economic standing of the middle class.
–An increasing stratification within higher education.
–The increasing income and wealth disparities of the American population.

“The consequence of this narrowed, short-sighted perspective,” Churchill said,

 is that the capacity of higher education to function, as it has for at least a century, as an agency of economic and social mobility, has been seriously damaged. That means the future of American democracy may well be at stake.

Churchill countered this vision of a wrong-way journey with the journey described by Emily Dickinson:

There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry-
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without offense of Toll–
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human Soul.

Here’s Churchill:

We’re going somewhere, not just messing about, and where we are going is connected with what in us is best and most worthy of cultivation.  The trip is good in itself;  it makes us better versions of ourselves;  it has side effects that make us more professionally and vocationally successful in life;  and it helps to make us better citizens of a participatory democracy.  Choose the argument you like best:  they all work.  The metaphorical travel that is the study of the liberal arts and sciences does these things.

Churchill even noted that Dickinson has good news for our cost-conscious society:

Now listen to Emily Dickinson again:  “How frugal is the Chariot/That bears the Human Soul.” We are not, in the Grand Scheme, talking about a lot of money here. The NEH has been starved and skimped on for decades. It operates now at 40% of its proven capacity–even less if you adjust for population growth since that high tide in–can you imagine–1979!  We have let these critically important, inexpensive studies languish in a crossfire of suspicion, to the detriment of our national health.  The programs that have suffered most are the research programs, the very ones that sustain the activity at the core of the humanities’ value.

Churchill told us that Phi Beta Kappa has decided to become a far more vocal advocate for the liberal arts than it has been for some time. If the liberal arts are under attack, then the organization must take advantage of its half a million members:

Our aim is to identify, recruit, equip, and organize for advocacy, some significant number of our half-million to carry our message to those who hold American higher education in stewardship.

Our intended audience comprises all decision-makers and opinion-shapers who hold America’s higher education infrastructure in trust.

This will include lawmakers at all levels, trustees, members of state boards of higher education, and others, similarly placed.  We will urge them to reframe their thinking about the purposes of higher education.

We aim to complement the current ruling ideas, narrowly focused on short-term job preparation, with a renewed awareness of the importance of higher education in 

(1) preparing people for whole careers, not just initial jobs,
(2) building the dispositions of citizenship essential to the maintenance of a democratic society,
(3) engaging students in issues and experiences that raise the level of American society as a whole toward fuller visions of human flourishing, and
(4) equipping individuals and society to deal responsibly with matters of meaning and value.

We want decision makers to be mindful of the liberal arts and sciences as vital, central elements of its mission, not frills or dispensable luxuries.  We accept the task of carrying that case to those whose decisions will shape that mission. We will marshal data.  We will collect and disseminate personal narratives.

Those in attendance were particularly appreciative of how Churchill emphasized that the liberal arts must reach out to all sectors of society. As a public liberal arts college, St. Mary’s is particularly concerned with how (in Churchill’s words) “students who would benefit most from immersion in the liberal arts and sciences will be increasingly less likely to encounter them.”

Being a public liberal arts college means that we model ourselves on small private colleges but charge state tuition. We’re still more expensive than we like, but we cost half of what the private colleges do, which gives us special opportunities to reach out to students who couldn’t normally afford such an education.  Churchill’s speech strengthened our resolve to continue recruiting lower income students in inner city Baltimore and Washington and in rural Eastern Shore Maryland.

I leave you with Churchill’s final words:

Phi Beta Kappa wants to advocate “Learning, for All of Life.”  Yoking learning and life calls forth our Greek origin: “philosophia biou kybernetes” means “Love of learning is the guide of life.” The word “all” is a critical addition. “All” means all of life in the chronological sense, but also in the sense of breadth–we think learning in the liberal arts and sciences, learning in college, pertains to the whole scope of human life, in its richness and reach, not just to, say, getting the first job. “Learning, for All of Life” reaches out deep and wide. It calls on our classical origins. It speaks to the need to raise the American conversation about college above short-sighted and confining notions of its purposes. It reaches toward the future. It may well become our rallying cry, and we hope you’ll help us try it out:  Learning, for All of Life!

This is exactly what I wanted our students to hear.

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  • sue

    I was just wondering, Robin, if liberal arts needs to move beyond liberal arts education. To put it one way, if colleges face a demise, need our education in liberal arts? And in what way does film move into the place that the novel once had? It’s hard to remember that novels are a fairly new invention, and given all the books that were written and the small number of those which are life-giving, one might say the same about the film industry, which is really still in its infancy.

    I’m encouraged by grass-roots poetry readings (and slams) as well as the part that musical lyrics also play in helping to shape our culture. Might there be a future in which “liberal arts” becomes integrated into society as part of something we all do? I think for instance about how “secular” society celebrates Christmas, something that used to be in the purview of the Christian church. And yet the themes of giving and generosity have gone far beyond the walls of a single institution. Might the same thing happen with the “liberal arts?”

  • Carl Rosin

    Excellent, excellent! Thoughtful and literate in a way that epitomizes the best of our civilized society (here’s hoping that that best/civilized becomes more and more the norm!). Thank you for posting this.


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