Meacham: Why Liberal Arts Matter

At noon last Wednesday in Sewanee, Tenn., in a 19th-century Gothic hall dominated by a sandstone fireplace and decorated with portraits of somber bishops, the University of the South—my alma mater—elected a new leader, John M. McCardell Jr., the former president of Middlebury College. (We refer to our president as vice chancellor, in the English tradition. If the fates had ever brought Anthony Trollope and Tennessee Williams together to collaborate, Sewanee might have been the result.) Those of you who share an affinity for small institutions know the power of sentiment at such moments—how the old rooftops remind us of when we were young, and all of that. Arguing the interests of Dartmouth before the Supreme Court, Daniel Webster captured this feeling well: "It is, sir, as I have said, a small college. And yet there are those who love it."

I love Sewanee, an Episcopal university tucked away on 13,000 rural acres of the Cumberland Plateau. It is a place where students and faculty wear academic gowns to class, where the vice chancellor also serves as mayor, and where I spent four years without having a key to my room, much less locking it. Modernity intrudes with a single full-time traffic light on campus, but for years that incursion was ameliorated by the sight of a professor of religion's cat taking a daily nap on the street directly beneath the light. People knew to steer clear.

Belief in liberal-arts colleges like Sewanee, however, is about more than sentiment. As I sat listening to McCardell accept his election, I thought, not for the first time, about the difficulty of making the case for something so expensive and so seemingly archaic—an undergraduate liberal education—in an economic and cultural climate that favors efficiency and tangibility. It is inarguably hard to monetize a familiarity with Homer or an intimacy with Shakespeare.

It is just possible, though, that the traditional understanding of the liberal arts may help us in our search for new innovation and new competitiveness. The next chapter of the nation's economic life could well be written not only by engineers but by entrepreneurs who, as products of an apparently disparate education, have formed a habit of mind that enables them to connect ideas that might otherwise have gone unconnected. As Alan Brinkley, the historian and former provost of Columbia, has argued in our pages, liberal education is a crucial element in the creation of wealth, jobs, and, one hopes, a fairer and more just nation.

Barack Obama started out at such a school (Occidental in Los Angeles) before moving to Columbia, where the core curriculum requires undergraduates to be grounded in canonical literature, philosophy, and history. Steve Jobs, who dropped out of Oregon's Reed College, nevertheless credits a calligraphy class he attended there with providing part of the inspiration for the Macintosh. Employers say all the time that they value clarity of writing and verbal expression, and that they often find liberal-arts graduates expert in both.

We need to make sure that the liberal arts prepare people for a good life, not just the good life. For too long private colleges like mine have been seen, with more than a little justice, as provinces of the already affluent. Such institutions devote a lot of resources to remedying this, but educations at the more elite private schools are prohibitively expensive, and always will be.

Which is why the state universities that underwrite liberal-arts programs, including newish public honors colleges within large research institutions (Michigan and Georgia are two examples), should continue that good work. There is never enough money—or at least it seems as though there is never enough—but cutting the liberal arts is a false economy.

The other emerging market is the world of online education, which is one of the great democratizing stories of recent years. Like NEWSWEEK, Kaplan Inc. is a part of The Washington Post Company, so I am unapologetically prejudiced. Yet the fact remains that digital educational enterprises are to the 21st century what public universities were in previous generations: accessible and more affordable means for people to better their minds and their lives.

For some the future will be shaped by a Sewanee, for others by a business course taught online. The unifying theme that connected my own musings among the bishops (living and dead) was straightforward: if the country is to prosper—economically, culturally, morally—we have to trust in the institutions, old and new, that nurture creativity, and then hope for the best.

Jon Meacham is editor of NEWSWEEK and author of American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House and American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation.