This Is How They Did It

Solar Decathlon PlanningWhen Florida Governor Rick Scott said a few months ago that “we don’t need a lot more anthropologists in the state . . . I want to spend our [state] dollars giving people science, technology, engineering, and math degrees,” he fired the latest salvo in a war of ideas that centers on the cost and value of higher education in America.

With student loan debt skyrocketing—by many estimates, the country is poised to see this figure pass the $1 trillion mark, which would push it past the amount of credit-card debt in America—the relevance and utility of a liberal arts education is being called into question: is it worth it?

For centuries, the answer has been “yes,” the belief being that a liberal education—the broad exposure to knowledge from across academic disciplines—best prepares a person for all the challenges one will face in life. “Yes, but not if such an education is static,” Middlebury’s President Ron Liebowitz told me recently. “A liberal arts education for the 21st century must be dynamic—it must create connections between its foundational qualities and the larger world.

“It must also provide opportunities for students to use their critical faculties and skills, honed through the exposure to a wide range of ideas and a diversity of approaches to accumulating knowledge,” he continued. “Such an education allows one to see things more broadly, understand things more fully, approach problems more creatively, and where appropriate, develop ways to address these problems. That is the value of a liberal arts education that a highly specialized education doesn’t offer.”

Challenging convention is not new to Middlebury. The College itself began as an odd notion—an “experiment,” Liebowitz noted in his 2004 inaugural address, founded without government support in a “tiny settlement,” isolated in the frigid Northeast. Then in 1915, Vassar College German professor Lilian Stroebe saw Middlebury’s remoteness as the perfect setting for an immersive language program, a Universität on Otter Creek. The burgeoning Language Schools soon attracted international scholars and sheltered brave thinkers fleeing totalitarian regimes—from Spain, Italy, Russia, and elsewhere.

When Joseph Battell died and bequeathed the College his Bread Loaf Inn in nearby Ripton, the school prepared to sell it until two English professors knocked on the president’s door with a bold proposal: allow them to found a graduate school of English and use the Inn as their mountain campus. The notion of Ripton, Vermont, as a literary polestar would once have been risible, but in 1921 Robert Frost arrived to teach, and five years later he helped launch the nation’s first writers’ conference there.

And in 1965, when Middlebury quite literally invented a new major, environmental studies, its interdisciplinary curriculum spread like brushfire to universities throughout the country. Little did the College know it was sowing the seeds for today’s carbon-neutrality pledge, its LEED-platinum environmental center, and its biomass facility.

Whatever traits have crept into the campus gene pool in the last two hundred years, risk aversion is not one of them. Which is why it shouldn’t be surprising that Liebowitz would be advocating and leading the charge for an evolved definition of what a liberal arts education might become. But even that did not prepare him to consider, at first, an audacious idea proposed by his wife Jessica in early June 2009.

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