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A new age of liberal arts colleges?

IT is probably a bit premature to make the claim with finality, but recent studies and various testimony strongly suggest that we may be entering the age of the liberal arts college. If the '60s were the time of the community college boom and the '70s a decade of the vocationally oriented comprehensive university, the mid-'80s may be the turning point for liberal arts colleges.

In one sense, the term ``turning point'' is a bit misleading. Liberals arts colleges have been around since our nation's first beginnings and are America's most singular contribution to the tradition of higher education. Many people would argue that the age of the liberal arts college occurred near the end of the 1800s, when colleges of this stripe were founded all across the country, especially the Midwest.

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But if the 19th century was the age of flowering for these colleges, recent decades have been less favorable times for them.

Over the past few decades, public attention turned away from liberal arts colleges. It would not be fair to say that they became lost in the shuffle, but it is clear that the educational values and standards they embodied were viewed as less relevant to the needs of students and society than those of other forms of education.

Liberal education was misunderstood both in terms of its content and its consequences, and liberal arts colleges were dismissed as remnants of an earlier and simpler time. For people preoccupied with educational payoffs, liberal education seemed a luxury that only few could afford, either financially or vocationally.

The citizens of the country have not done a complete turnabout on these perceptions, of course, but attitudes are shifting, and they are shifting dramatically and decisively toward the liberal arts college.

For one thing, the growing awareness of financial aid programs at such colleges has shown people that these places are indeed accessible. At Lawrence, over half the students receive financial aid to support their education. In addition, recent studies and testimony have emphasized the enduring value of liberal education both for purposes of individual career advancement and of shared civic cohesiveness.

The most encouraging -- and, at the same time, the most challenging -- expressions of public awareness of the importance of the liberal arts and sciences have appeared in two recent reports emanating from Washington: ``Involvement in Learning,'' prepared last year for then-Secretary of Education Terrel Bell, and ``To Reclaim a Legacy,'' written by William J. Bennett, President Reagan's new secretary of education.

The Bell report decried the trend toward early specialization and concluded that ``the college curriculum has become excessively vocational in its orientation, and the bachelor's degree has lost its potential to foster the shared values and knowledge that bind us together . . . .'' The Bennett report emphasized the role of the humanities in fostering a sense of our common cultural heritage.

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Although addressing distinct problems and ends, both reports express the climate of opinion regarding education that understands its larger civic objectives and that promotes its ambitions for excellence. They are, in short, higher-educational versions of the ``A Nation at Risk'' report which generated such attention and concern in 1983.

Like that report, these two newer pieces are critical of American higher education, and liberal arts colleges are by no means exempt from that criticism. While such colleges have not abandoned their allegiance to the humanities, for example, they have permitted their curricula to become more diverse than cohesive and have fostered a proliferation of courses without a common conviction about what knowledge matters and what an educated person needs to know.

That situation has been reversing for the past few years, however, and as these reports now call for a reassertion of the centrality of the liberal arts and for institutions of higher education to engage in curricular reform, the liberal arts college is best equipped to respond effectively.

The liberal arts college can and should assume a prominent role in the reawakening of American higher education.

Now that its values have received the spotlight of public attention and the endorsement of both corporate and commission studies, such a college should seize the moment and exercise imaginative and bold leadership.

Our time has come -- again.

Richard Warch is president of Lawrence University, Appleton, Wis.

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