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Liberal Arts in a 24-7 World

Sept. 4, 2013

  Photo by John Seyfried

Welcome everyone to the start of Oberlin’s new academic year. I hope you all had healthy, happy and productive summer breaks, and wish you great success in the months ahead.

I love this annual ritual of students heading off to college. But in recent years, the start of school at colleges and universities around the world always seems to be accompanied by a burst of criticism from some pundits who question the relevance, the cost, and the purpose of higher education, especially at liberal arts institutions.

In our 24-7, Internet-powered, media world this inevitably leads to a lot of point-counterpoint exchanges. These are often heavy on opinion and light on meaningful data or analysis. While I’m not eager to fuel the chattering machine, I do believe deeply in the value of liberal arts education—especially Oberlin’s distinctive form of liberal arts education. So as classes begin, I think it is worth reminding ourselves that the teaching, the learning, the research, the hard intellectual work, and the wealth of co-curricular and extracurricular activities we offer at Oberlin are vitally important for our students, for our society, and for the world.

Oberlin’s mission as a unique liberal arts institution is to help our students have meaningful, considered lives. We enable them to flourish in multiple careers, and we encourage them to be informed, engaged citizens of their communities and the world. That has been our mission for many years, and will, I hope, continue to be for years to come.

Critics of liberal arts education often focus on the fact that we seek to educate the whole person rather than preparing our graduates to succeed at specific jobs that employers are seeking to fill. They point to surveys that show a large majority of employers rate the college graduates they hire as unprepared or under-prepared for their job.

To me, the key phrase is the college graduates they hire. The unemployment rate for college graduates is far lower than for high school graduates. That has been the case for many years. Also, every new job comes with a learning curve. In my experience, employers value employees who work hard, learn quickly, know how to teach themselves, and bring knowledge, insight, and creativity to their job.

Those are the qualities we seek to instill at Oberlin. We teach our students to become lifelong learners who are their own best teachers. We teach them to take intellectual risks and to think laterally—to understand how the humanities, the arts, and the sciences inform, enrich, and affect each other. By connecting diverse ideas and themes across the academic disciplines, Oberlin students learn to better reason and analyze, and to express their creativity and their ideas. They are capable of thinking and acting globally and locally.

Those attributes are worth attaining simply to have a meaningful life. But they are also critically important for our graduates’ future success in this globalized, technologically driven economy. A survey in April of this year of 318 executives at private sector companies and nonprofit organizations by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, underscored the importance of what Oberlin does. It showed that the attributes of Oberlin alumni are exactly what those leaders value in their employees and seek in the people they hire. Four out of five employers said each college graduate should have broad knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences.

Studies show that current college graduates will likely change careers 15 times in their lives. An Oberlin graduate is likely to make 11 career changes before turning 40. That’s why we’ve strengthened our Career Services office in recent years, and why we work so hard to help our students get internships and career opportunities.

Providing students with a top-quality liberal arts education in a residential setting is very expensive. There is no way around that. At Oberlin, we work to offset the cost and minimize our students’ exposure to debt by providing a great deal of financial aid. Roughly 75 percent of our students receive some form of aid. This year the college will provide more than $57 million in financial aid. That’s the equivalent of one-third of our annual operating budget. We believe that keeping Oberlin accessible to worthy students from every walk of life is money well spent.

And we are convinced that the education we offer them is second to none. Our faculty consists of outstanding scholars who are also devoted teachers. Oberlin students study with full professors—not grad students or adjuncts. As I wrote last week, our science students have opportunities to do independent research that students at larger universities usually don’t get until they are juniors or seniors. Oberlin students are encouraged to think across traditional academic disciplines. We also encourage them to follow their intellectual passion, to work hard in their classes, and to connect with our alumni network while building their own network of connections.

Residential colleges offer their students so many educational activities. Oberlin, as those of us who live, work, and study here can attest, is an exceptionally rich educational community. Because we are home to the Conservatory of Music and the Allen Art Museum, the education we offer is of unparalleled breadth and depth. The conservatory’s world-class professional training, for example, is enriched and enhanced by the curricular and co-curricular offerings of the College of Arts and Sciences. That enables the con to produce leaders, innovators, and entrepreneurs such as the contemporary classical group eighth blackbird, which recently won its third Grammy award. Or Jeremy Denk, the acclaimed pianist and blogger from the Class of 1990. Or Robert Spano, Class of 1984, the brilliant music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the Aspen Music Festival.

New students and returning students, I urge you to take advantage of the myriad lectures, films, concerts, recitals, exhibitions, symposia, and health and wellness and athletic events that occur every semester.

On Tuesday, September 10, for example, we will kick off our Convocation Series with an evening with Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson, two of the world’s greatest thinkers, writers, and doers when it comes to protecting the environment, battling climate change, and promoting sustainability. On September 20, Nobel laureate Toni Morrison will be in Finney Chapel for a special Convocation. And on September 27, Randy Newman, the brilliant, utterly original singer-songwriter, arranger, composer, and pianist will be with us. He’ll be followed on October 1 by Jose Antonio Vargas, the journalist, multimedia storyteller, and the founder of Define American, a campaign that seeks to elevate the immigration conversation.

That’s a great line-up to start the year here in Oberlin. I’m looking forward to hearing what our guests have to say. I hope you are, too.

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