President Roseman delivered the following speech to Leadership Cumberland on Feb. 13, 2014.
Good morning, it is a pleasure to be able to speak to you today about the mission and purpose of the liberal arts today. In particular, I’ve been asked to say a bit about how a liberal arts education prepares our graduates for their futures, how it prepares them for their future careers, and I say careers plural for a reason. As we all know, the work we do today is not necessarily the work we will find ourselves doing 5 years from now. And, of course, an education is also about preparing young people for their lives outside of work, their lives as citizens of a community. And I mean community within the workplace, the local community, and the globe. What we at Dickinson proudly describe as forming engaged citizens for the world.
I think that mission, preparing young people for the future, is true, not just for Dickinson, but across higher education. However, every school gives it its own spin, its own identity. At Dickinson, our mission is to prepare young people so they can successfully navigate the mid-21st century. Our approach to doing so is to build a class as diverse as we can so that it best represents the world and society our graduates will eventually enter. We build a curriculum and a culture that immerses our students in questions about issues of the day including climate change and sustainability; we give our students hands-on experience across the curriculum; and we accentuate connections between and within the disciplines we teach. We also engage our students in our process of self-governance so that they have a seat at the table where important discussions and decisions are made.
What you get at Dickinson is a quintessential residential liberal-arts experience, but with a twist of practicality. What we call a useful liberal-arts education. While many of our peers are now discovering the need to prepare their students for the future by developing a global perspective in their curriculum, breaking down disciplinary boundaries, and touting the importance of sustainability, here at Dickinson, this is simply what we do and have been doing for many, many years. We take pride in preparing our students, giving them the tools and self-confidence to navigate their personal and professional lives in a world full of complexity and difference.
What you may not know is that less than 3% of all college graduates go to a liberal arts college. It is a small piece of the higher education marketplace. A marketplace that has had some interesting additions and approaches lately. For example, we all know about big public and private universities, and even those come in different stripes. We know about community colleges and good regional colleges. These are not-for-profit organizations that are funded by a combination of state funding, tuition dollars, and the generosity of private individuals. More recently, we have the addition of for profit institutions, and there has been some explosive growth there. However, there has also been some market corrections in that part of higher ed, and the numbers of students attending these for profit institutuions has gone down, their profits have gone down, and some of them have actually closed. They will continue, but there has been a shakeout in the industry.
Layer on the on-line learning bubble where there was a lot of conversation that we could teach more efficiently and economically by putting 100’s and thousands of students in front of a computer. That bubble collapsed quickly, and that concept, which isn’t actually particularly new, will also continue to shakeout. Just today, one of the leaders in the industry announced they were no longer going forward with their program.
However, what we do at liberal arts colleges, what we do at Dickinson , is at the very opposite end of the spectrum to this approach of on-line learning. Instead, what we do is very intimate, very social, very labor intensive. In fact, we take pride in the social enterprise that is at the core of our pedagogical approach. We are a high-touch place with an average class size of 17 students and no classes, no classes, larger than 50. At Dickinson, we believe that close engagement between faculty and student, and close engagement between students from all walks of life, is the hallmark of the best educational experience possible.
When the question is asked as to why college is so expensive, this is at the core of the answer. Because it is so labor intensive and no one, really, has come up with a way to make learning more efficient. Not real learning. Yes, you can probably teach some introductory math courses and other introductory materials using the computer, but you can’t teach more complex fields. You can’t truly teach someone to think because you cannot challenge them unless you are sitting in front of them.
A residential liberal arts college means a very specific thing. It means you are living, working, learning in close quarters with over 2000 other young people. And, if we do our job right, those young people are not carbon copies of each other. They are from all over the country, all over the world. They are from all walks of life and bring the breadth of that life experience to the table. They are different religions and races and sexual orientation and political leanings and come from different socioeconomic backgrounds. They must navigate their journey through Dickinson together, they must learn to collaborate, they must learn to live together. In fact, I hope there is a certain amount of conflict between them, because that is when you really learn something new.
In my experience talking to alums who are also employers, the residential experience offers something very, very important. It builds social skills. It builds the ability to work with people different from yourself. It builds the ability to learn from people different from yourself. Teamwork. Many employers are telling me that young people lack the social skills needed for the workplace. As a result, I think a residential liberal arts education will become more valuable in time.
The purpose of any educational institution is to instill intellectual habits that will last a lifetime and enrich not only one’s professional life, but one’s personal life. In order to prepare our students for the workplace and a complex global economy and society, we instill the ability and habit to think flexibly, to be able to integrate information and see connections across seemingly disparate fields, to think critically, be adaptive, to be able to make and support an argument (not just make stuff up).
The difference between a specialized education and a liberal arts education is that I believe a liberal-arts education gives you the ability, when confronted with an assignment, a social situation, a task that stretches you intellectually and personally, allows you with confidence, skill, and grace, to navigate that challenge. As I say frequently, having a liberal-arts degree means that you have the confidence to say to yourself: “I have no idea how to do that, but I’ll figure it out.”
As I said earlier, part of the mission of the liberal arts is to prepare our graduates to be members of their community. Some schools talk about this more directly than others. At Dickinson, we don’t hesitate to declare our intention to produce engaged citizens. We expect our graduates to be active participants in their communities. We are very proud of the fact that in a recent poll of Dickinsonians, 85% of all respondents indicated that they vote, a rate 50% higher than the national average. We are very proud of the fact that 90% of these Dickinsonians volunteer in their communities, and that 95% contribute to non-profit organizations. So many engage in a debate on return on investment in terms of what college costs vs. what you make over your lifetime. There is no question that you earn more, much more, about a million dollars as a college graduate. I would prefer to measure the success of our graduates by what they contribute, not by what they earn. And the statistics I just cited that describe citizen engagement should be such a measure of success.
In the end, what a liberal arts college like Dickinson provides is an educational experience that is unique and nourishes and supports our graduates for a lifetime. As the cost of education rises, we as a society must ensure is that this does not become an educational experience that is accessible only to the elites of society, and that a liberal-arts education in particular, and education in general, does not become a luxury good.