In his 2014 Baccalaureate address, President Liebowitz presented a vision for an education that embraces the timelessness of the liberal arts, while also allowing for its evolution. He titled the address—and the concept—“The Liberal Arts Plus.”
How did you settle on this topic?
There were a couple of reasons. First, I wanted to address the general perception that a liberal arts education is somehow less valuable than before, stuck in the 20th—or for some, 19th—century, and I wanted to show how it is still so very valuable and has evolved at Middlebury. The liberal arts serve as the foundation of our baccalaureate undergraduate program—a traditional curriculum, offering courses in the humanities, the social sciences, the arts, and the natural sciences, including mathematics. That curriculum inculcates in our students a love of learning and provides them with invaluable lifetime skills they will use in whatever career they choose. The “plus” represents the exceptional opportunities that students have to build on this foundation in ways that complement our core values while recognizing the rapid changes and challenges of this century. Students are learning how to lead, how to plan, how to collaborate, and how to experiment—through student organizations, through internship opportunities, through curricular innovation, and by taking advantage of our Programs on Creativity and Innovation (PCI, now seven years old). They are becoming increasingly bold in pursuing their passions that may be independent of or connected to their academic pursuits. These changes have had a tremendous impact on a Middlebury education.
The second reason I had for choosing this topic was to talk to the graduates directly about the value of their education, to give them confidence and underscore how their Middlebury education has prepared them for the world they are entering better than perhaps they themselves (and their parents) imagined. It’s my hope that they will think about this in more than a passing way, and it will give them the confidence they need to succeed and to contribute in an increasingly competitive and complex world.
Can you explain the genesis of this term?
I need to credit my colleague, Middlebury economist David Colander, for coining the phrase and for developing some initial ideas of how it might be implemented, though I think my use of the term may be a bit broader than David’s. David holds some strong views about the direction a liberal arts education has taken over the past few decades and has spoken passionately about the need for programs and departments at liberal arts colleges to resist becoming overly specialized; he advocates for departments to maintain their broader liberal arts focus and worries that the student population is ill served when departments design a curriculum that focuses predominantly on preparing students to become specialists in a field. The benefits of a liberal arts education, he argues, are diminished when this happens since the large majority of students will not become specialists in their major.
David has also advocated for “practitioners” of a given field to be able to team with Middlebury faculty to show students how the concepts they learn in the classroom are used in the “real world,” and he has called the joining of the disciplinary content within a liberal arts curriculum with practitioners a “liberal arts plus” education.
But for my purposes, I wanted “liberal arts plus” to be more expansive, to include more than what happens inside the classroom, be it with our dedicated faculty or with both our faculty and practitioners. I believe it is important—crucial—that one’s education extends beyond the classroom walls; what happens outside that realm is the difference between a liberal arts education today and yesterday, and it has to be if our graduates are to succeed in the 21st century.
And this has a reinforcing effect in the classroom.
Right. I think in previous generations, mine included, we were left on our own to experiment once we left college, to figure things out on the go. Today, waiting until after college to do some experimenting is often too late. We hope to develop a culture and an approach to a four-year education that would be inclusive of these opportunities. Interestingly, a number of faculty say they notice that when students have experimented outside the classroom, even without any kind of formal learning in an area, they bring a visible confidence and a new skill set to the classroom. Outside the classroom activities, then, have affected what goes on in the classroom, and it is often a valuable addition.
So what are the challenges to this approach?
Getting people to let go of the notion that helping students get jobs or succeed in specific ways following graduation is not part of our academic mission. I think we have to recognize that instilling in our students a passion and love of learning is not in conflict with preparing them for “their careers” and the competitive world they face upon leaving Middlebury; in fact, I’d argue that the two are in concert. Maybe if our students were all coming to Middlebury intending to pursue PhDs, it would be a little different. But the reality is the overwhelming majority of graduates will not be going down that path, and they need to be prepared a little bit differently today than 15, 20, or 30 years ago.
Faculty have not always agreed with this analysis.
Yes, though I think we’ve made headway. I’ve seen colleagues change their opinions on this issue, especially those who have children of their own entering college and wish for them to attain an excellent liberal arts education plus the skills to help them get a job soon after graduation and contribute to society.
What are some examples of this in action?
There are examples that have been around for some time and are part of the curriculum, such as scientific research with faculty. For decades, our undergraduates have taken what they learn in the classroom and applied this knowledge in laboratories and in the field, where they’ve worked side by side with our science faculty. But our students today have so many more opportunities beyond this kind of collaborative work. In traditional lab and field work, students are typically engaging in a faculty members’ research—which is an extremely valuable experience—but they’re not developing or designing these experiments on their own. What we’ve seen recently with, for example, our STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) pilot project is more student focused: 10 students, mentored by three faculty members, have chosen a STEM problem and then worked collaboratively to solve it. It was up to the students to choose the problem and then to figure out how to solve it. They benefit from the faculty mentors guidance, of course, but the mentors encourage the students to pursue the answers on their own and are, in some ways, learning right along with the students.
In the Baccalaureate address, I talked about this project, as well as other examples—our two Solar Decathlon experiences (the building of two solar-powered student houses, now on campus) and the Museum Assistants’ Program (MAP)— that are allowing our students to apply what they learn in the classroom, in the liberal arts, to so-called “real-world” situations.
These efforts exist within the curriculum in ways they might not have existed outside of it.
I think that’s right. But there are parts of the “plus” that do exist outside the curriculum. Look at the activities happening in the Old Stone Mill (OSM), which was set up not only to help unleash students’ creativity, but also to reduce our students’ inhibition to experiment and to try things they otherwise would not.
When we started the Programs on Creativity and Innovation (PCI) and set aside a space for students to work on projects outside of the curriculum, we did so because we were seeing recent student generations that were increasingly risk averse, reluctant to venture outside the familiar, and not wanting to “jeopardize their GPAs” by studying something new—defeating one of the hallmarks and benefits of a liberal arts education. So the beginning was all about encouragement; we wanted to provide students with opportunities to experiment without worrying about grades. Over time, we’ve seen students become more comfortable with exploration and experimentation. They seem to be more willing to take creative chances, and I believe that goes hand-in-hand with the success of programs like the Solar Decathlon and STEM.
This nonacademic programming supports and encourages the efforts that are being linked to the academic program. Now, the big challenge is showing how these efforts outside the classroom are complementary to our academic mission and are not at odds with traditional classroom work. These activities help make a Middlebury liberal arts education that much better.
And this challenge involves the faculty.
There are faculty who are naturally attracted to this idea, so they are going to participate. We’ve seen it in STEM, we’ve seen it with MAP, and we’ve seen it with the Solar Decathlon, where faculty from a number of departments have advised students throughout their project. The bigger question is whether we can do this kind of learning across the curriculum, so that all areas of the College have equal access and opportunity. This can feel like an uphill battle, but I think, over time, there will be more opportunities across the curriculum.
But you think it’s a battle worth fighting.
Absolutely. I think the future of a liberal arts education is a combination of our foundational values and ideals—all of which I recounted in my address—and the evolution we are experiencing right now. The world is calling for more. The students are calling for more. It’s now time for us to listen a little more.