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A Liberal Arts Education in Three Dimensions

by Kenneth P. Ruscio ’76
President, Washington and Lee University

This is an unsettling period for higher education, but also for virtually every political, economic, religious and social institution. Words like volatility, anxiety, caution, risk and uncertainty dominate our conversation.

When I was teaching at Washington and Lee, I saw my role as providing intellectual equilibrium for the students. If they were looking at things too simplistically, confident they had it all figured out, I complicated their thinking. If they seemed utterly confused, it was my job to simplify things. Now, in the midst of the uncertainty we face every day, I find myself on the far end of the complexity scale, searching for a few orienting principles of my own to make sense of the confusion.

One of those principles is this: I choose to think of a liberal arts education in three dimensions rather than two.

There is a basic but misleading view of a college education that goes like this: Imagine a continuum, which like all continua is, of course, two-dimensional. At one end is the pure liberal arts. At the other is job training.

To hear the discussion these days, you would think the main task for us as educators is to find a comfortable spot somewhere along the continuum, a spot that balances the need to educate students for lives of consequence and virtue, the traditional focus of the liberal arts, with the increasing need to prepare students for careers and jobs.

Graduates should lead the good life; they should also lead a productive life of economic self-sufficiency.

Think of a third dimension, however, described simply as problems. My thought is prompted by what I have seen here at W&L, where law, business and journalism exist side by side with philosophy, classics, literature, the sciences and history, among other disciplines.

Recent years have seen the creation of the Shepherd Poverty Program, the Environmental Studies major, an expanding Entrepreneurial Studies Program, the Law School’s innovative Bridge to the Profession curriculum and several interdisciplinary fields of study.

These entities often come together around problems. A discussion of corporate governance is different when philosophy and politics professors sit at the same table as business and law professors. An analysis of a free-speech case is richer and more grounded when a historian and a literature professor work with an expert in journalism. A debate over the sources of and solutions to poverty is deeper when sociologists, philosophers, economists and lawyers provide different perspectives.

The relevance of the liberal arts to today’s world is a much more subtle and nuanced conversation than simply job training versus creating knowledge. Our students want to solve problems, and even shape their careers to meet the challenges. In order to do so, they have to understand the world, and an education in the liberal arts makes that possible.

Within this three-dimensional space, it is possible to imagine a great deal of variation among liberal arts colleges. To be sure, the beauty of the diversity in liberal arts education today-and in the future-will be the subtle differences in how we prepare students for the world they will enter, blending in distinctive ways our concern for the traditional liberal arts, an orientation to the world’s problems and a sensitivity to the practicalities of work.