By Allison Eck ’12

Calvin Johnson ’10 is standing on coveted ground. He works for Google as a program manager of the self-driving car — a project that Business Insider dubbed potentially life-saving. Legions of polytechnic students and coding virtuosos vie for positions at Google. But Johnson didn’t even major in computer science.

“I majored in biology because I like biology,” he said. “Animals, plants — the whole ecosystem is intriguing to me.”

Though Johnson admits that his background in scientific data analysis has aided his work at Google, he says Hamilton taught him much more than that. “I think the liberal arts experience teaches you how to learn quickly, think on your feet, express yourself well and step up to new challenges,” he says. “All of that comes in handy regardless of what you do after college.”

Johnson’s thoughts reflect current research — from the pages of The New York Times to the work of Hamilton faculty — on the topic of liberal arts schools and the life preparation they offer.

“Contemporary critics of higher education tend to talk as if skills, especially those readily measurable around the time of graduation, are the primary benefit of a college education,” Professor of Sociology Dan Chambliss and Christopher Takacs ’05 write in their forthcoming book, How College Works. But, as Johnson’s story demonstrates, “that’s a very limited view. In fact, different colleges produce a host of different positive results: technical skills, historical knowledge, personal and organizational connections, deeper religious faith, military training, intellectual awakening, cultural awareness and others."

What of Hamilton and similar liberal arts colleges? What do they do well, and how can they do it better? Those questions are being asked — and answered — on the Hill as the liberal arts tradition faces a new generation of economic, philosophical and technological challenges. How College Works, for example, scheduled to be published this winter by Harvard University Press, provides a practical sociological perspective based on a large and invaluable body of data: the Mellon Foundation Assessment Project, an 11-year study of student outcomes and attitudes, primarily at Hamilton, that was directed by Chambliss, the Eugene M. Tobin Distinguished Professor of Sociology. A variety of other institutional efforts are also taking shape as Hamilton seeks to reframe the liberal arts in ways that maintain and even revitalize their core values, while also adapting to a changing cultural and economic landscape.

Amid the particulars runs a common thread, what Chambliss and Takacs call the deceptively simple “fundamental principle of our book: College works by bringing students together with the right people at the right time.”

The Liberal Arts Under Fire

Anyone who has followed the news in recent years knows that higher education seems mired in a chronic state of woe, some of it self-inflicted. Colleges and universities are at the nexus of several forces that have converged to call into question not only their efficiency, but their very value: soaring tuition costs in an era of economic turmoil; graduates’ difficulty in finding meaningful jobs in many fields; a growing demand that colleges produce tangible results as measured by sometimes dubious “assessment” yardsticks; and the rise of comparably cheap online alternatives that threaten to make “going to class” an anachronism, since class will now come to you.

While schools that depend primarily on public funding have taken their share of punishment, the deeper long-term threat may be to private liberal arts colleges such as Hamilton. There were 212 U.S. liberal arts colleges in 1990, according to a recent study in the journal Liberal Education; by last year that number had plummeted to 130, a decrease of 39 percent in a single generation. Dependent almost entirely on tuition, endowments and the continued generosity of alumni, private liberal arts colleges are financially vulnerable. Resolutely residential to preserve the classic college experience, they continue to define “distance learning” as study abroad, not as something you do with your laptop while in your pajamas. Most crucially, Hamilton and a dwindling handful of peer colleges carry in their DNA the values of the liberal arts themselves, and those values are often the real target of higher education’s most vocal critics: the contemplation of ideas and issues that transcend students’ own lives; a dedication to broad critical thinking that may not translate neatly and immediately into professional skills; and a commitment to close, extended student-teacher interaction that cannot match bottom lines with lecture-hall learning.

Liberal arts programs need not apologize for their seeming inefficiencies, argues Professor of History Doug Ambrose; they are exactly the point. “One does not study the liberal arts as a means to making money, getting a good job, entering a specific career,” he says. “The goal of a liberal education is wisdom. Such an education is necessarily one in which market forces cannot dictate what ought to be taught or how students ought to understand their education.”

An Ever-Evolving Idea

Many distinguished thinkers have ground out essays, articles and even entire books seeking to define the liberal arts (see “The Changing Liberal Arts,” this page), but on the Hill the current debate is not a black-and-white affair. Rather, the question is how to maintain the fundamental values and purpose of the liberal arts while simultaneously acknowledging that modern students must think about all the facets of their future lives — including the value of meaningful work that allows graduates to reach their potential.

The College’s updated list of educational goals, for example, was adopted two years ago after the faculty’s Mellon Curricular Leaders group visited the handful of other campuses that, like Hamilton, had no distribution requirements or core curricula. The group concluded that Hamilton needed to update its goals in a way that not only underscored the importance of early advising, but also emphasized the importance of both creativity and analytical rigor across the disciplines.

The resulting statement of goals and purposes emphasizes such qualities as intellectual curiosity and flexibility, analytic and aesthetic discernment, creativity, communication and expression, an understanding of cultural diversity, and ethical, informed and engaged citizenship. It articulates the need for breadth of study across disciplines in service of the College’s mission: “As a liberal arts college, Hamilton expects students to undertake coursework in a wide variety of disciplines, to explore areas unfamiliar to them and to make connections across courses and disciplines. A liberally educated person studies in the traditional academic divisions of the arts, foreign languages, the humanities, mathematics, the sciences and the social sciences.”

Melissa Nezamzadeh ’11, a math and French double major, noted that classes outside of her usual coursework helped “cultivate the mind.”

“I think my liberal arts experience gave me a very broad foundation in a lot of different areas I wouldn’t have necessarily explored,” she said. “For example, I had the opportunity to take a class called Empire and Rebellion: War in the Caucasus. I wouldn’t have read any of those great Russian authors otherwise.”

But the statement also explicitly balances that breadth of study against the need for academic focus — “disciplinary practice … in order to acquire mastery of a specific ability or craft.” An open curriculum “can be shaped to meet each individual student’s interests and aspirations,” the statement notes, but it is not an open invitation to dabble without direction or purpose.

At the Core: Solid Relationships

Faculty members play an ever more crucial role in finding this balance — as teachers, as advisors and, increasingly, as mentors. The College puts a growing emphasis on advising by creating earlier and more substantive interactions between professors and students.

“Advising is central to the liberal arts experience, for in many ways the liberal arts experience is a communal one,” said Professor of Philosophy Todd Franklin, the Mellon Curricular Leader on advising. “When it comes to making the most of all that college has to offer, course descriptions and time schedules are no substitute for one-on-one conversations with people who are eager to help students work through their anxieties, define their aspirations and develop their educational plans accordingly.”

Mentors are even more critical. A mentor is a teacher who goes beyond a close, working, “professional” relationship with a given student to form something “more wide-ranging, more personal,” Chambliss and Takacs note. “Mentors, we found, can have deep, lasting, positive results for students, and at the College … roughly 80 percent of students said they have a ‘close and personal’ relationship with some faculty member, whether formal advisor or not, by the time they graduate. That’s a lot.”

“For many faculty members and students,” the Curricular Leaders’ statement adds, “this relationship will be as important as any they form.”

Targeted Programming

An upgrade in the College’s Quantitative and Symbolic reasoning requirement reflects the growing emphasis on the so-called STEM disciplines — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — in the larger liberal arts debate. Until recently, Hamilton graduates were required merely to “demonstrate basic quantitative literacy” in any of several ways. Beginning with the Class of 2014, students must pass at least one designated quantitative and symbolic reasoning course by the end of their second year.

The QSR requirement is integral to the development of critical thinking, a key element of the contemporary liberal arts, says Mary O’Neill, who retired this summer as director of Hamilton’s Quantitative and Symbolic Reasoning Center and academic support coordinator for QSR. “Every day we are bombarded with information on the news, on the web,” she told the Alumni Review before her retirement. “Sifting through this data, and knowing how to read it to find what information is pertinent, helps us to be better citizens.” Through quantitative literacy, “we can understand the world.”

Additionally, the ad hoc Committee on the First-Year Experience — made up of 11 faculty members, administrators and students — recently recommended a selection of first-year courses, each dedicated to “framing the liberal arts” by focusing on “at least one of the three areas for which the College has stated standards for academic work: writing, oral communication and quantitative and symbolic reasoning.” The faculty decided this spring to make such courses voluntary.

‘Nothing Could Stand You Better’

Chambliss and Takacs note that while the liberal arts as a tradition or philosophy have clearly lost traction with the public, they are as relevant as ever in terms of preparation for professional life.

“The Big Three academic skills — writing, speaking and critical thinking — in fact habituate students to the management and leadership of others,” they write. More globally, customs and attitudes that sustain learning are stitched into daily life at a liberal arts college. This conditioning proceeds slowly but has long-range positive effects. “If a college does its work well, the big results won’t be evident for years,” Chambliss and Takacs write.

A case in point is Linda Johnson ’80. At Hamilton, she crafted a course of study through the American studies major; after that, she attended both business school and law school. Years later, she’s president and CEO of the Brooklyn Public Library, a Hamilton trustee and an ardent supporter of the liberal arts. Although she firmly believes that some people are born leaders, Johnson says a community like Hamilton affords students more opportunities to hone those leadership skills than a larger university would.

New Role for Career Center

A higher profile for the Maurice Horowitch Career Center reflects how Hamilton is seeking to maintain traditional liberal arts values while encouraging greater student commitment to career planning. A 2010-11 task force comprising trustees, alumni and administrators studied ways to raise the Career Center’s visibility, efficiency and sense of priority; six task force implementation groups then took on specific challenges:

  • Career Community: A stronger network of alumni, parents and faculty to assist in such activities as internships, job shadowing and preparation.
  • Peer Advisory Network: Older students who counsel first- and second-year students on career exploration and research.
  • Faculty Engagement: A greater involvement by professors in student outcomes.
  • Employer Relations: Stronger and more diverse connections with potential employers.
  • Communications: A capacity to reach and engage all Hamilton constituencies on career-related topics.
  • Assessment: Measurements and standards to determine how well the Career Center meets its goals.

“I would say that if my Hamilton education has contributed to my leadership in my career, it’s because of the environment and the living arrangements,” she said. And whether inside the classroom or out of it, the purpose of that educational development is not to gain a specific knowledge base — rather, the goal is to “learn how to learn.”

“The idea is to come with an open mind,” she said. “Then, the liberal arts will prepare you to be receptive and to have a rich life. Nothing could stand you better.”

The Changing Liberal Arts

One difficulty in considering the liberal arts — cited by both critics and defenders — is in defining them precisely, in a way that speaks to abiding values and continuities without reducing the concept to an inflexible blueprint. A second complication arises from the word liberal itself, which many wrongly construe in its contemporary political meaning.

The liberal in liberal arts has its roots in the Latin liberalis, meaning related to freedom. The liberal arts originally signified the arts, or areas of study, suitable to free men: the elite or aristocratic class, who were free not only from many social constraints but also from professional or vocational concerns. They were privileged to explore pure knowledge as a way of modeling the human ideal; women, and the vast majority of lesser men, need not have applied.

While the class and gender implications of liberal have changed radically over the centuries, the idea — and ideal — of an education focused on reaching one’s potential as a human being has not.

In the Middle Ages, the liberal arts were codified as the trivium (grammar, logic and rhetoric) and quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy) — hardly a course schedule for even the most hidebound traditionalist in the 21st century. Yet we can see in those seven disciplines the outlines of Hamilton’s modern liberal arts curriculum: a devotion to writing and speaking with clarity and grace, to critical thinking, to quantitative reasoning, and to aesthetic appreciation and creative accomplishment.

By the 19th century and the chartering of Hamilton, Greek and Latin were integral to the liberal arts curriculum as well, not simply as languages but as repositories of classical knowledge and insight — a pedagogical path still expressed in the College’s Greek motto, gnothi seauton, “know thyself.”

In modern times the concept of the liberal arts has been pulled in several directions, often politically charged. Some argue that the philosophy should continue to adhere to some form of canonical core curriculum, while others identify it with open intellectual inquiry, non-vocational and usually within a community of scholars — in practical terms, a residential campus that features close, sustained student-teacher collaboration.

That lack of clarity, Professor of History Doug Ambrose says, is a chronic concern. “Without knowing what the liberal arts are, what the nature of a liberal arts education is, how can we know how to proceed?” he asked. “What to teach? What to invest in? How to appeal to potential students?” 

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