On My Mind
by Michele Tolela Myers, president
On this beautiful and serene campus, I find it difficult to believe that the future of liberal arts colleges will be less distinguished and more uncertain than their past. Yet, the signs are troubling. Daedalus, the Journal of the Academy of Arts and Sciences, titled its Winter 1999 issue Distinctly American: The Residential Liberal Arts Colleges—and one essay sounded the alarm, noting that over the last 20 years, America’s liberal arts colleges have endured a steady shrinkage of their traditional market as the number of high school graduates declined by 21%, from 3.2 million in 1976 to 2.5 million in 1993.1 The essay describes marketing wars, the promotional practices that have become the staple of most college recruiting offices, and a dwindling number of students —perhaps fewer than 250,000 out of more than 14 million—who experience education in a small residential college, without graduate students.
Truly, the uncertainties liberal arts colleges face are enormous. While Amherst, Williams and other wealthy colleges are unlikely to ever be on the endangered species list, they, too, depend on the survival of a sector that must continue to be seen as a serious option by enough of the best and the brightest of high school students, a sector that must continue to play a meaningful role in defining excellence in American higher education.
There is no question that liberal arts colleges go increasingly against the cultural grain. For example, we’re small, focused on the individual, and rely on the direct contact that society seems increasingly to reject. We care about creativity and the long-term life of the mind, not about tailoring students to fit pre-defined molds, designed for quick return and desirous of immediate gratification. And, of course, we are hugely expensive at a time when the bottom line is all that counts.
And yet, here we are. At Sarah Lawrence, our numbers continue to grow, and interest from prospective students has never been more avid. It would be simple to sit back and ignore the challenges that we and our fellow liberal arts colleges face— but we cannot do that.
So what are the challenges in our future? There are many, but two in particular stand out as we consider the role of activism in the life of our community.
The first is inclusiveness. The most selective liberal arts colleges, along with the best research universities, will continue to be a training ground for our elite. Our shared selectivity will guarantee our prestige, because the best students want to be where the best students are. But if our costs continue to climb and our ability to provide financial aid to significant numbers of students doesn’t, we risk that the preparation for leadership we provide will be restricted to the children of the most affluent, better-educated members of our society. It is, therefore, imperative that we make even more extraordinary efforts to become more inclusive in selecting students, awarding financial aid and opening our campuses to a population diverse in all possible ways. The leadership of the country must reflect the diversity of our society, or we will breed leaders out of touch with the people they serve.
And second, the democratic arts. Annual surveys of college freshmen by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA show a continuing decline in students’ political and civic engagement. “To develop a meaningful philosophy of life” and “to strengthen a just and civil society” were among the top reasons the majority of students attended college some 20 years ago— reasons now replaced 2-to-1 by “being well off financially.” In the post-9/11 era, Sarah Lawrence and, indeed, all liberal arts colleges need to provide a forum for the democratic arts and civic engagement. There is a need for ongoing democratic and sustained dialogue on our campuses on the pressing issues of our times and their ethical and social implications, beyond typical panel discussions and lectures by “experts” followed by polite questions and answers. Conversations about values, social justice, socially and ethically responsible decision making, and complex and clashing world cultures must take place among people given equal voice at the table, regardless of their institutional status and regardless of their beliefs. And these conversations must be sustained over time so that thoughtful questioning and deliberation can take place. The skills of engagement needed for these types of discussions are basic to the exercise of democracy.
Our students must learn to be inclusive, to engage one another, to listen, to question, to examine critically what they hear and what they say, to build consensus, and to prepare for action if they are to become intelligent democratic participants and leaders who can cultivate a deep desire to bring peace and justice at home and abroad. Our safety depends on it, the economy of the world depends on it. Our small, intimate scale makes it possible. We need to lead the way.
1Daedalus, Winter 1999, pages 47-49.