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Skidmore College
Office of the President

Liberal Education in Context

September 1, 2003
by President Philip A. Glotzbach

Liberal education is a journey, not a destination. This journey begins with a commitment to truth-seeking that is modeled by the faculty, who make it their responsibility to inspire a similar commitment in their students. In exploring the breadth of liberal learning, students gain familiarity with the different ways of interrogating the world, creating knowledge, and making meaning that are embodied in the various academic disciplines and art forms represented in the curriculum. And today they especially need to become sophisticated consumers of electronic information. In doing all this, students learn to appraise the worth of an idea or an artwork independently of the identity of its author. To resolve the complex, multi-dimensional problems they will encounter throughout their working lives, our graduates will need the flexibility of mind to draw upon insights and analogies from many different disciplines at once. To cope effectively with the increasing pace of change in what Peter Vail describes as the perpetual whitewater of today's world, they must truly be prepared "to continue their quest for knowledge."

A liberal education leads students to a deeper understanding of the social nature of their own humanity, an understanding that entails an equal recognition of the humanity of all other persons with whom they share this small planet. All of us who live in the 21st century—from young persons just entering adulthood to those of us with a bit more life experience—need to be adept travelers in a multiracial, multiethnic, multicultural, global milieu that scarcely could be imagined even a decade ago. Perhaps most importantly of all, students must learn that there are situations that call upon us to invoke moral categories and stand behind the ethical judgments we make. As part of their development, therefore, undergraduates should be calibrating their own moral compasses.

A liberal education provides young persons entrée to the accumulated wisdom of all previous human generations.

It is not the charge of a college to provide its students a set of ethical values ready-made for them to adopt. However, it is very much the charge of a serious liberal arts college such as Skidmore to demonstrate the need for moral decision-making, to help students critically explore available ethical frameworks, and to empower them to make informed choices among them or create new ones. In sum, a liberal education provides young persons entrée to the accumulated wisdom of all previous human generations, and in so doing ensures the preservation and extension of that intellectual and cultural heritage for generations yet unborn.

But we need to say more to capture the full significance of this enterprise. For at its core liberal education is not just about transforming the lives of individual students but about transforming—or better, saving—the world. The concept of salvation invoked here should be taken less as a religious allusion than as a metaphorical acknowledgment that the fate of the world now rests in our own hands, and most especially in those of successive generations of our students. Our world has need of salvation to the extent that it still contains ignorance, needless suffering, and social injustice. Proof that this is the case, unfortunately, abounds in the form of

  • repressive, tyrannical governments,
  • the ongoing destruction of large segments of the global ecosystem,
  • the ravages of disease—from new threats such as the growing AIDS epidemic in the developing world (and its resurgence in the developed world) to familiar maladies such as malaria (which still today afflicts approximately 300 million people world wide and kills approximately 1–3 million children each year),
  • the continuing repression and exploitation of women,
  • a widening global gap between prosperity and poverty (UNICEF reports that nearly 18 million children live in poverty in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Republic alone; at the recent World Summit on Sustainable Development it was reported that 2 billion people lack access to basic sanitation), and
  • as emphasized so painfully by the events of September 2001 and so many other acts of terror, deep reservoirs of misdirected anger and hatred.

Such conditions are encountered all too frequently, both around the globe and within our own privileged country. Clearly, we inhabitants of the new century still face an enormous collective challenge.

Colleges and universities best serve the cause of humanity by helping students engage the two broadest dimensions of these global challenges: First, there is the pressing need to achieve ecologically sustainable patterns of economic development worldwide, creating the conditions of prosperity while avoiding potentially catastrophic (and possibly irreparable) damage to our planet's precious ecosystem. Second, we need to create the political conditions that foster international, national, and individual security while avoiding the Orwellian nightmare of governmental repression that is justified by appeal to external threats. Realizing these goals will require not only courageous and informed leaders but also, and perhaps even more importantly, intelligent, creative, and engaged citizens—persons who will make meaningful differences by living what Robert Coles has termed lives of moral leadership. In short, our fundamental task is to educate both the mind and the spirit: to help our students become global citizens who understand the imperatives of their time and care enough to act on them.

To do so we must balance an unflinching awareness of our challenges with the tools of hope. Understanding the significance of individual contributions helps us not be daunted by the scope of the task. The Jews Oskar Schindler saved from Hitler's madness made this point by presenting him with a ring fashioned of gold pried from their own teeth. They engraved the ring with a Talmudic verse that translates as "He who saves a single life saves the world entire." This aphorism eloquently expresses a basic human truth that gives meaning to our work as teachers, parents, administrators, staff, trustees, and students. For at its best, a liberal arts college prepares its graduates to advance this work of saving the world entire, one life at a time: increasing the store of human knowledge, attacking social problems, creating works of art that lift the human spirit or reveal previously unseen aspects of the human condition, parenting well, increasing our collective wealth, and through service giving back to the human community more than they take for themselves. The American educator Horace Mann expressed this point succinctly: "Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity." The best liberal arts colleges prepare and inspire their students to strive for these crucial victories.

These values might appear abstract, but in fact they are both concrete and enormously practical. A high-quality liberal education provides the cognitive skills and emotional maturity required to excel in both the workplace and the polity of the 21st century. Most importantly, it offers the personal resources needed to live a sustainable life as a moral being in a world where the ethical signposts periodically seem to have been knocked flat. The presidency of a national liberal arts college such as Skidmore is truly a bully pulpit. Although one must resist the urge to preach, it remains the president's responsibility, from time to time, to remind both the college community and world at large just why such institutions exist.