On the value of a liberal arts education.

I Find Karma (adam@cs.caltech.edu)
Mon, 22 Dec 1997 12:10:57 -0800

[Sent from the president of William and Mary to some of the alumni --
namely the ones who bothered to go to homecoming, I think -- on why a
liberal arts education still makes sense in the late 1990s... --Adam]

November 1997

Dear Friends of William and Mary:

Just a few weeks ago, some 8000 of you arrived in Williamsburg to
celebrate Homecoming. You came to renew friendships and to recall a very
special time in your lives. But it was quite clear to me, as I spoke
with you at the Ball, or before the parade, or during the football game,
that you were not here simply to relive the past. You asked me some
serious questions about the present and future of William and Mary. And
you wanted some reassurance that it has not become the kind of place you
read about in the popular media.

You might well be concerned: you read that liberal arts education is
outmoded, that standards have declined, that curricula are incoherent,
that esoteric research has eclipsed effective teaching, that students
are listless and disaffected, that universities are unresponsive to the
needs of students and their families, that values no longer matter. In
short, you read that American universities are at best anachronisms and
at worst money pits.

This letter, then, will be a little different than others I have
written. I will speak less than usual about what we do and more about
why we do it, in order to counter some of those charges levied against
higher education. Of course, I cannot speak for all institutions, only
for my own. But in so doing, I hope I am able to convince you that, far
from being an anachronism, William and Mary stands as what ought to be
the standard for education in this country at this time.

Let me begin by saying a little about what William and Mary is not.
Around the same time that you were celebrating Homecoming, I happened to
read an article in the New Yorker entitled "The Next University," about
a university designed in response to those charges I just mentioned.
There is no debate at the "next university" about the relationship
between teaching and research, because the faculty are professionals,
otherwise employed, who are hired for 5-6 weeks at a time to instruct
one or two night courses. The "next university" cuts costs in other ways
too. There are no homecomings, because there is no place to come home
to. Classroom space is rented in office buildings around the country,
and enough courses are delivered via computer that the university's
"customers" are able, as author James Traub notes, to "earn a degree
without ever mingling with other students or even meeting a professor."

Traub's observation about a class he visited says it all: "What was a
little hard to get used to . . . was the lack of intellectual, as
opposed to professional, curiosity. Ideas had value only insofar as they
could be put to use--if they could do something for you." In fact, the
university's founder asserts that an idea can "do something for you"
only if you can "apply what you've learned the next day at work." The
next university appeals to those who understand that "higher education
is a passport to a better life," but who "don't want to buy something
they're not using." It gives its customers nothing less than what they
want--and, sadly, nothing more.

College administrators and faculty are frequently encouraged to think of
students as "customers," sometimes for very good reasons. The idea of
the student as customer helps remind us to make sure we do, in fact,
deliver what we promise. But let me say this. If liberal arts education
has become irrelevant because our "customers" don't want to understand
Shakespeare or Adam Smith or Galileo if they can't apply their ideas at
work the next day, then perhaps we should stop thinking of our customers
as students.

Traub gloomily predicts that institutions like William and Mary will
soon give way to those like the "next university": "the traditional
American university occupies a space that is both bounded and
pastoral--a space that speaks of . . . a commitment to unworldliness."
The traditional liberal arts college, he implies, is out of touch with
consumer needs and desires in the real world. This article--and the
attitudes toward liberal arts colleges that it and other stories in the
media reflect--convinces me that it is time to remind ourselves about
why liberal arts education is important. Unfortunately, there is
probably some general validity to the criticisms made of higher
education in this country. But let me state unequivocally that the "next
university" is not the answer to such criticism. And let me defend that
contention by explaining to you why the "bounded and pastoral" spaces of
the College remain important--and most significantly, why ideas that you
might never use in the workplace are possibly more important than those
you'll apply tomorrow.

The media depict the general failure of higher education to prepare
people for work--a failure, no doubt, that leads to the perception in
the general populace that liberal arts education, in a strange echo of
the 1960's, is no longer "relevant." But good liberal arts education
does prepare students to work. Our last, large-scale alumni survey (done
in 1990) revealed that 82% of our alumni are engaged as professionals or
managers, that 88% of you believe that the College prepared you for your
current occupation, and that 91% of you are satisfied with your work.
And 95% of you report that you have remained intellectually active and
that you education at the College contributed to your ability to define
and solve problems, to write effectively, and to understand different
people and environments.

But no matter how practical a liberal arts education may be, it is a
mistake to think that the only function of higher education is to
prepare a nation of workers. Higher education is a passport to a better
life--but "life" is not limited to "work." The students who graduate
from William and Mary will be--as they have always been--much more than
workers. They will be parents, neighbors, volunteers, hobbyists, role
models, consumers, citizens.

Every morning, as I take my walk around campus, I pass the statue of our
most famous alumnus, Thomas Jefferson. It would be difficult to work or
study here and not be reminded daily of the obligations of living in a
democracy--one of the greatest being the education of an informed and
intelligent populace. As Jefferson once wrote, and as I frequently
repeated, no purpose of education "is more important, none more
legitimate, than that of rendering the people the safe, as they are the
ultimate, guardians of their own liberty." That is an idea that few of
us are likely to apply at work tomorrow--but it is one to consider as we
think about what kind of education we want for our children.

In a society that regards knowledge as a commodity and the purpose of
education as immediate gratification, a school like William and Mary--so
apparently "unworldly" because it is dedicated to the notion that a good
education must be broad and deep and so relatively slow--seems out of
step. But we are bombarded daily with advertisements, political slogans,
editorials, and other attempts to hasten and control the important
decisions we face about our own lives and the lives of others. In such a
world, liberal arts education is not an anachronism. It is a necessity.

Two examples from literature will help me explain. In 1948, with the
threat of fascism in his immediate past and the threat of communism in
his immediate future, George Orwell imagined the nightmarish
consequences for a society that had lost the capacity for reasoned
argument and sustained thought. The result --1984--may seem irrelevant
to us in 1997, almost a decade past the end of Soviet Communism and a
half century beyond Nazi Germany. But occasionally our society reminds
me of Orwell's Oceania, whose citizens cannot remember from one day to
the next what they are fighting for or who they are fighting against. In
a society in which the highest wisdom available is the wisdom of the
sound-bite--and unfortunately, I am no longer speaking of Oceania--the
populace loses patience, wants immediate results. Such a society will no
longer value literature, economics, science; it will no longer value
ideas that can't be applied at work tomorrow. Such a society ceases to
value even the study of the mistakes of our past--a study vital to
overcoming them--because such an endeavor requires too much effort, and
for no immediate payoff. Such a society ceases to study. It only

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. makes a similar point in "Harrison Bergeron," the
story of a 14-year-old genius who lives in a society in which
intelligent people wear mental-handicap radios to prevent them from
pursuing a thought for more than twenty seconds. Harrison rebels on
national television, and within 20 seconds is shot and killed. And
within another 20 seconds, Harrison's parents, who watched the whole
thing on their TV, cannot remember what they saw--only that it was sad.

Here is Jefferson's lesson, the lesson that our past has taught us and
that Orwell would teach us. If we abdicate thought, relinquish reason,
refuse to study anything that we cannot immediately consume, we risk our
freedom. Democracy does not merely allow responsible and educated
participation--it demands it. That is why William and Mary remains
committed to liberal arts education. We will teach outstanding young men
and women about the great ideas and accomplishments of our past; we will
train them to challenge assumptions; we will encourage them to imagine
and strive for a better future. We will make them think about things for
more than 20 seconds, or 20 weeks, or even 20 years. We will not become
the "next university." If we were ever to give up liberal arts education
to an impatient society, we would end up, I fear, much like Harrison's
parents, watching our televisions, not quite sure what happened--only
that it was sad.

And so William and Mary will remain "bounded and pastoral"; we will
continue to employ full-time faculty who have devoted their lives to
teaching; we will continue to provide both our faculty and our students
the time and the space to study. Don't misunderstand me--that does not
me we will become inefficient or unresponsive. We have done much in the
last decade--through Strategic Planning, through curriculum development,
through slow and careful study--to ensure that we continue to offer the
best education available in the country at a reasonable price.

I was heartened to learn earlier this fall that the College continues to
do very well in the various rankings. In the face of the criticism I
mentioned earlier, it's nice to be able to tell you that U.S. News and
World Report still ranks William and Mary the second most efficient
university in the country--although I continue to be concerned about our
ability to maintain quality with limited funds. More heartening are the
rankings that attest to the quality of our programs. U.S. News ranked us
the best small publicly assisted university in the nation.
Kaplan/Newsweek lists us among the "Budget Ivies," and notes "W&M
attracts faculty who are often well known in their fields yet remain
devoted to teaching." And the Fiske Guide to Colleges, which gives
William and Mary its highest rating (five stars) and designates us a
"Best Buy" for combination of quality and cost, quotes one of our
seniors:"'Teaching is job #1 here!'"

I will continue to caution you that these ratings cannot truly capture
the essence of a university. Nevertheless, I am encouraged by them. They
provide us some evidence from sources outside the College that we do
what we say we do: provide a traditional, high quality education by
faculty who care very deeply about teaching and about their students.
And more importantly, they indicate that our culture continues to value
traditional education--by teachers, in classrooms, on campuses,
discussing important ideas that will carry us into a future well beyond
tomorrow's workday.

I promise you this: you--and the generations who follow you--will always
have a place here for Homecoming. And you will come not to remember a
time lost. You will come to remember the ideas that have improved
humanity, the reasoned yet impassioned debates that help us understand
what is right and what is good. You will remember that studying is
hard, but you will remember as well the excitement of transforming slow,
difficult work into new knowledge. And you will remember that your
lives--as well as your work--are better for your having been here.

Anne and I wish you the best of the holidays.

Most cordially,

Timothy J. Sullivan
College of William & Mary
Williamsburg, VA


I'm afraid of Americans.
-- David Bowie