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In Defense of a Liberal-Arts Education

A broader view on life and learning, such as that offered by liberal-arts colleges, is required of America's leaders

SPRING is the season when graduating secondary school seniors and their parents make critical decisions about college or university choices.

Students in America are blessed with choices. There are more than 3,000 colleges and universities in the United States, ranging from community colleges and vocational institutions to the finest research universities in the world. Most students will stay close to home. About half will commute from their home to a nearby institution. Eighty-one percent of all first-year college students will attend colleges in their home states. Some 80 percent of matriculating students will attend public colleges and universities. The rest will go to independent or church-related colleges and universities.

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There are about 600 independent liberal-arts undergraduate colleges in the US - and incidentally, there are few elsewhere in the world. Liberal-arts colleges are concentrated in great numbers in the Northeast. But excellent liberal-arts colleges exist all over the country, from Davidson and Rhodes in the south to Reed and Whitman in the Pacific Northwest.

Why select a liberal-arts college?

First, liberal-arts colleges celebrate and reward outstanding teachers who have a passion for their subjects and are devoted to helping students learn. An inspiring teacher can profoundly influence a student's life. At liberal-arts colleges, your professor is your teacher; there are almost no graduate-student teaching assistants. The best liberal-arts colleges have dozens of exceptional professors who push their students and engage them one-on-one. Teachers at the best liberal-arts colleges also serve as advisers, mentors, coaches, and role models of what it means to be educated.

Second, in liberal arts colleges, learning is viewed as a verb, not a noun. Learning is viewed as a process of stretching, exploring, and thinking critically rather than as memorization and feeding facts back to professors on quizzes and exams. Liberal-arts colleges challenge students to write, to debate, to participate actively in small classes and seminars, to conduct independent research, to examine existing theories, tear them apart, and put them back together again.

Third, a liberal-arts college is an ideal place to explore what it means to be a human being, to debate the obligations of citizenship, to learn about democracy and market economics and their alternatives.

It also is a splendid place for reading and rereading the classics - Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles, Kant, Hegel, Shakespeare, Rousseau, Marx, Smith as well as Jefferson and Madison. And it is an excellent place for exploring non-Western literature and alternative ideologies and religions, and to learn about Muslim, Buddhist, or African philosophy. It is here, in the friendly environment of small classes with professors devoted to teaching, that a student has the opportunity to challenge his or her own perspectives, to question, debate, and defend the values that are so important in our changing and multicultural world.

Fourth, liberal-arts colleges encourage breadth rather than specialization. Students are usually asked to take courses across the curriculum. A primary goal of the liberal-arts college is to educate rather than train. Training in the law, medicine, engineering, journalism, or other subjects can come later. Indeed, more than half of liberal-arts college graduates go on to professional or graduate studies after their undergraduate education.

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American culture seems to encourage one to specialize as part of the process of becoming an expert and a ``success.'' But leaders in our society tend to be those who have more than narrow professional training - those who have explored interconnections between fields, learned foreign languages, and understood diverse cultures, the scientific method, poetry, music, economics, and history.

Finally, liberal-arts colleges are about as safe a place as one can find for making mistakes, and having help as one picks up and learns from these mistakes. Liberal arts colleges offer countless opportunities for compassionate counseling and residential education, for leadership development, for sports and fitness activities, for making lasting friendships, and for personal growth. Liberal-arts colleges care a lot about courage, creativity, integrity, values, and community.

These institutions have among the best retention and graduation rates of all colleges and universities. They have a proven record of educating top professionals and societal leaders. They can boast confidently that they add enormous value to those who have the privilege of attending them.

Liberal-arts graduates are invariably committed to a life of growing and giving. They understand that the greatest mistake one can make is to be afraid of making mistakes - and thus new challenges and boldness have a genius, power, and magic in them for those who are not afraid of a life of continuous learning. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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