March 7, 2015

What is a Liberal Arts College?

When I started at Bryn Mawr I was excited to be a professor at a liberal arts college. I loved the ideal of an education which focuses on the overall growth of the student, and I was eager to be part of structures which enabled that for students. As an undergrad at Cornell I got a liberal arts education, as it is commonly called, but the experience of the small, liberal arts college was foreign to me.

At Bryn Mawr I came to know students who chose to come there instead of going to a big university, either public or private. These students came with a contrast in mind between a liberal arts college and a professionalized university. Call this the contrast. As with any school, some students at Bryn Mawr seemed to find themselves there rather than actively haven chosen to be there. But other students seemed to thrive and revel in the fact that they were making a choice by coming to a college like Bryn Mawr, where they hoped that free of any professional training they could explore whatever they wanted and grow as human beings. As a professor, I was like these students. I had a choice to see if I wanted to teach at a university, and I chose the Bryn Mawr experience instead. I too, like the students, was driven by the sense of the contrast. I hoped the contrast was true, and that being at Bryn Mawr would offer me a different way of being an academic than I had seen at Cornell and Harvard.

The contrast was played up by administrators at Bryn Mawr. It was an easy thing to fall back on to sell the college. The reason to choose Bryn Mawr was encapsulated by two messages. First, a liberal arts college might be better for you than a university, and second, as a woman, being at a woman's college might be better for you than a co-ed school. I wasn't sure I believed the latter. Or, at any rate, I wasn't sure what to think about that. I thought it was good that students had the choice to go to a women's college. But naturally for myself it was the first message which moved me: yes, I thought to myself, universities are professionalized spaces, where one is dictated to by the professional norms, whereas at a liberal arts college one can be more free of that. I was in the grip of the contrast, and hoped it was true.

As I got into being a professor I started to feel that the contrast is not true. At least it is no longer true. This was disconcertingly evident to me just trying to decide what the syllabus for my classses should look like. Could I teach whatever I wanted? I realized with dread: no, I couldn't. After all, a class I taught was not an island, alone by itself, constrained only by the rules I created for it. The class was part of the education the student was getting in the department, and the department was part of the broader web of departments in the profession.

In any case, what would it mean to teach what I wanted? One possibility was to be like Paul Grobstein, who was one of the most intelligent and thoughtful people I met at Bryn Mawr. Paul, who passed away in 2011, was a Rortyian who didn't believe in truth or hierarchy, and wanted the classroom to be simply a space for different voices to engage with each other without any one voice, including his own (he somewhat unrealistically hoped), dominating. As an assistant professor at U. Chicago in the 70s he was interested in integrating biology with humanistic studies, and sought to break down boundaries between disciplines; his colleagues at Chicago thought he was wasting his skills, and denied him tenure. He got tenured at Bryn Mawr, tried for many years to work from within the system, got fed up and decided to do his own thing. Which meant that he was going to teach biology and be a professor as he saw fit. So in his intro biology class or his seminars he would engage the students in discussions of philosophy and psychology in relation to understand the brain, and not worry about preparing the students for their pre-med requirments, or even for what they might need to know to go to biology grad schools. Not that he was against his students going to med school or grad school. Of course not, but he was not going to let that dictate how he was going to teach his classes. As can be expected, some students loved him, and some didn't. Some felt he was the epitome of the liberal arts professor, and some felt he was irresponsible and self-indulgent, thinking more about his needs as a professor than the practical needs of his students.

I was inspired by Paul, but I couldn't see myself being a teacher like him. One colleague once said to me, "Paul has no business being a professor; he is a guru, and he is brain-washing his students." I didn't believe this in the least. Paul no more brain-washed his students than a normal biology professor brain-washes her students. But I understood that inevitably this is how it was bound to look from the outside. Paul presumed to be able to give up on the professional norms altogether, and from the perspective of the more professional professors, it seemed like he was leading an intellectual cult. This feeling was created by the fact that since Paul set himself against the general forces of the biology profession, for a student to align with him was to choose a side in the disagreement between Paul and the biology profession. And the worry was: could a student be in a position to choose a side in a reflective manner, aware of the opportunities she was giving up in the broader biology community? I felt this worry, and if doing whatever I wanted was a way for me to break with what is generally accepted in the philosophy profession, I didn't want the students to join me at the risk of their own path.


This dilemma came home to me when I prepared syllabi for my courses. If I did a syllabus that was radically different from the kind taught at the "top" schools, then what I would be implicitly saying to the students was: "Sorry, I am not going to be any help to you if you want to go to the kind of grad school I went to." Without myself publically arguing with the philosophy profession about what it should look like (which I wasn't doing at the time), to take such a stand against the profession in the classroom felt irresponsible, and even cowardly. Here was a difference between me and Paul. He was tenured and he was speaking publically for how the biology profession and academia should be different; to that extent, the students at least knew, to some extent, what they were getting into when taking his classes. But I was an assistant professor, who didn't publish and wasn't engaging with the philosophy profession in any public way. For me to then treat my classroom as a space set apart from the profession would be duplicituous. A way for me to have my own philosophy community by, as it were, holding the students hostage to my view. I could tell students what I think, but in order to do that I had to also tell them that I disagree with much in the profession. Which meant that I might also disagree with my own advisors from grad school, and even with my colleagues in the Bryn Mawr department in important ways. But I was not ready to come out about either of those facts. I don't know how things are now, but five years ago it felt to me near impossible to be able to do that as a junior professor.

So almost to my own puzzlement, my syllabi looked not that different from the syllabi I was taught. I made some changes here and there, but for the most part they were minor changes in the big scheme of things. This led to my being in the classroom in a way which felt at times to me like I was a disoriented clown. Meaning, when I was teaching it often felt like I was trying to square the circle, saying, as it were, that the system is fine, even as within myself I started to find myself disengaging from it more and more. It was one thing to feel that my professors did not understand my alienation, and that I did not open up to them. It was another, and even more painful, thing to feel that as I became a professor I was myself not listening to my own alienation, and that I was covering it over with the veneer of pleasantness and happiness I was conveying in the classroom. Whatever frustration in the past used to be directed towards my professors and towards the profession more generally now started to be directly towards my own self, as I was myself now a professor who was not listening to me, and was pretending publicly as if everything was ok.

For a while I told myself that it's ok if I don't enjoy publishing, and dealing with all that headache. At least I have my teaching. But in time I could not enjoy the teaching either. Not because of the students or the college. But because I didn't know how I could be the kind of professor who could listen to the kinds of needs I had had as a student. As I became a professor I became more conscious of the tensions in the profession. At the same, as I became a professor those tensions became internal me, as I was rebelling now against my own self, and the internal tension started to tear me apart. I would come from work depressed, unresponsible to my wife, growing distant from my family, unable to reach out to friends. I became a question mark to myself, of who I could be, and what was possible. And worst of all, the unrelenting pressure and pace of teaching and trying to write made it impossible to take a breather, and see everything afresh. The more I couldn't square the circle, the more I pushed myself, the more I chastised, blamed, cajoled myself, and in the process the more I started to burn out.

In this process one thing that started to become clear to me was that when I was in grad school I was in a bubble. That in a deep and important way the "top" schools, and the philosophers at those schools, were seriously out of touch with the reality of being a professor at less prestigious places.

When I was in grad school of course there was a sense that I was at a top school; it is impossible to be at Harvard would having the feeling that one is at some kind of a pinnacle. But what was not clear to me was just the extent to which places like Harvard, Princeton, Oxford, and now NYU and Rutgers, set the agenda for schools that are not even on their radar screen. As a student at Cornell and Harvard, I never really heard of the Bryn Mawr philosophy department; I hadn't heard of the faculty there, or read what they wrote. As a graduate student my sense for the philosophy profession was something like this: the schools with the famous people, and then schools with a little less famous people, and then the vast majority of schools out there which I didn't know much about, and which I didn't feel I had to think about. So as far as I was concerned, since I wasn't thinking about most of those schools, I wasn't part of structures which were in any way imposing standards onto those schools. After all, if the professors at Harvard aren't thinking about Bryn Mawr, then how they possibly be domineering over a school like Bryn Mawr? From the perspective of Harvard, not thinking about Bryn Mawr means not having any opinion one way or another about it, and certainly not trying to dictate what people at Bryn Mawr should teach or write.

As I started to teach at Bryn Mawr I started to see the hidden structures, and just how much the top schools dominated everything about the education being given at Bryn Mawr. There was a deep power imbalance, with Bryn Mawr trying to mimick a place like Harvard, even as Harvard can pretend that it is not imposing any standards on Bryn Mawr. Professors at Harvard could think that they are not imposing standards on less well known departments because, after all, they don't talk of imposing standards, and if anything, they talk about how everyone should pursue what interests them. But not talking about imposing standards is not necessary to imposing standards. For what creates the imposition is the imbalance that people at Bryn Mawr are trying to be like the people at Harvard, while the people at Harvard are not trying to be like the people at Bryn Mawr and, if anything, are trying to be like the people at Pittsburgh or Princeton or the Harvard of the past, or the Harvard of the future.

In order for there be equality between Harvard and Bryn Mawr there has to be a mutual give and take. Bryn Mawr is oriented towards Harvard because it wants its students to be able to go to places like Harvard for grad school. This, after all, is why my syllabi couldn't diverge too much from the kind of syllabi at Harvard. But in what way does Harvard have to be open to Bryn Mawr? What does Bryn Mawr have such that Harvard needs to be mindful of it? Answer: jobs for graduate students from places like Harvard.

If there wasn't philosophy rankings like the Philosophical Gourmet Report (PGR), then in order to place its graduates at Bryn Mawr, Harvard will have to have a personal connection to Bryn Mawr, and so be mindful of the kind of needs and the kind of situation there is at Bryn Mawr, and how that different situation might affect the kind of philosophy that is done. But PGR makes such a personal connection moot, and renders unnecessary the need for Harvard to be mindful of the different kinds of philosophy the people at Bryn Mawr might be interested in. For with rankings like PGR, schools like Harvard are able to impose a general standard saying that they are the best schools, and they don't have to develop any symmetrically, co-dependent relation to the less well known schools.

Even as the professors at the top schools claim to be open to all their colleagues at less well known schools, by affirming structures like PGR the professors at the top schools are saying that they are in fact better and so there isn't an equal relation between them and lower tier schools, and so it is fitting that the lower tier schools should adjust themselves to the top schools, but there is no reason why the top schools need to adjust themselves to the lower tier schools.

Practically this means that, among other things, the contrast between big universities and liberal arts colleges has collapsed. There can be no contrast if the liberal arts colleges have to mimick the education practices of the big universities, in order for the students from the former to be able to go to the latter for graduate school, and the big universities don't have to mimick the educational practices of the liberal arts colleges and can simply be in the arms race to be more and more professional, and so, as it were, more "productive" in some quantifiable way.


In The Marketplace of Ideas, Louis Menand gives a good history of how American education became professionalized in the 20th century. On this story, in the mid 19th century there was a division between liberal arts education and professional schools. Places like Harvard were mainly for liberal arts education, meaning places where the sons of the well off could go to get "cultured" before they went on to have professions. Back then a college degree wasn't required to go to professional schools, but it was something the well off did because it was the way to pass on the culture to their children.

Then after the Civil War and the change in the economy of the country, there was a need for more people to go to the professional schools. This threatened to make the liberal arts schools like Harvard unnecessary, almost as if the enculturing aspect of education was becoming secondary to professional education. With new schools like Johns Hopkins pushing the frontier of this professionalization, Harvard, Princeton and Yale and other well known schools had to also develop professional schools. Which raised the question: what is the relation between the liberal arts curriculum at these schools and the professional education? How to keep the enculturing aspect while adding the professional aspect? The master-stroke as developed by the prestigious schools: to make the undergrad liberal arts education (which makes the student "cultured") a pre-requisite to the graduate, professional schools. This was the foundation of the modern university, and which set the stage for the fight for the last 125 years between the liberal arts education and professional education in universities.

Menand suggests that in the present the liberal arts education aspect is in trouble. He tries to suggest some ways to address the situation, but it seems to me they all involve living into the fantasy that something other than a professional identity can still survive in universities. The reason is twofold. First, in the 19th century and even early in the 20th century, it was easier for schools to be sources of enculturing because the students all came basically from the same culture, and even the same circles within the culture. This is no longer true, and so arguments about what should be part of the syllabus are more present than the actual, unconscious bonds of enculturation which can makes the students feel that they are part of the same unified community. Second, with the eroding of the American middle class, a college degree by itself is no longer sufficient to get "good" jobs. And the anxiety of the economy, and the cost of college, makes it hard to treat college as just a fun four years where a student doesn't have to think about their future job, and can simply take classes to fulfill her curiosity even if it is impractical.

At college faculty meetings at Bryn Mawr, some people would try to fight the tide and stand up for what they thought was the essence of the liberal arts education: there was no use to a liberal arts education, they argued, and that is how it should be; it is not meant to be practical. To me this seemed like the death knell for liberal arts colleges. It presumed that liberal arts education was still the playground of upper class families who could afford to "waste" four years, and still have the structures to fall back some professional identity or the other. But then if a liberal arts education has to be practical, in what way can it be practical? Others at the faculty meetings said: it is practical because it gives skills which professional education doesn't give, such as questioning assmptions, changing one's mind, etc. Not surprisingly, this is also the defense many philosophers give for why students should study philosophy; that it will prepare them for any job, and help them to remake themselves as needed. The problem with this option is it is patently delusional and hypocritical. How can academics who never have to leave their tenured positions within academia train students to keep changing with the times? For example, academia is changing. How much are academics able to change with the times? In my experience, most academia are scared at the possibility that their college might close or they might have to get jobs outside academia. Or in academic philosophy in particular, how much are professors able to go with the changes happening in the profession? Far from going with the change, there is a general nervousness and uncertainty, and a need to keep to the status quo. Could people who feel unable change in this way nonetheless teach students how to change as needed? Seems unlikely.

So what then can liberal arts colleges be? They are now mainly extended prep schools for going to graduate schools or professional schools. The contrast between liberal arts colleges and universities isn't that the former concern the growth of the student as a whole, and the latter are pre-professional. Now any college degree is basically a form of pre-professional education. If there is a contrast, it is that universities can embrace this pre-professional identity more openly, and liberal arts colleges have to cover it over with rhetoric of the students discovering who they really are. You peel back the rhetoric, and look at what happens in the classrooms at a place at Bryn Mawr, and it is in principle, and in terms of the content, not so different from what happens at a big university.

I once asked a colleague at Bryn Mawr what he thought distinguished Bryn Mawr from a school like UPenn, which was the big name university nearby. His response: smaller classes. What was striking in this colleagues' response was that he didn't claim that thereby the students at Bryn Mawr got a different type of education. His point was that they got the same kind of education as students at UPenn, but just not as crowded. Or with more of a feel of a community. I found myself nodding to the colleague's comment, as he was highlighting that in effect the liberal arts colleges have no choice but to emulate the big, well known universities, and that such emulation renders any talk of getting a different type of education pretty much just rhetoric. 


  1. Although I don't have degrees from as prestigious universities, and the small, liberal arts college where I taught is so far off your radar that I won't bother naming it, my experience in academia sounds like yours. I achieved tenure, but always felt the whole enterprise was a kind of fraud. Those of us in the humanities always justified our existence in the curriculum by proclaiming how we prepared students to think "critically" and "develop as persons," but in reality we were desperate to keep our jobs, which for many of my colleagues was more than just a source of income, but a source of their identity as well.

    I lost my job when the administration conveniently eliminate the philosophy department. I say "conveniently" because although the official reason was "cost-cutting," the real reason was that I and other members of the department had challenged the President about a certain policy. Faced with the likelihood of bouncing from one adjunct position to the next, I went to nursing school and now work as a critical care nurse.

    I still love philosophy and fantasize about integrating it with my current pursuit. I relish the idea of being an independent scholar, but as you have noted, once you have been exiled from the city, it is difficult to determine exactly how to fashion a role outside of it.

  2. I'm with you on the grading--being a gatekeeper is rather unpleasant, and few people I know enjoy it. Your reflections on the supposed virtues of a liberal arts education--"it is practical because it gives skills which professional education doesn't give, such as questioning assumptions, changing one's mind, etc"--and your skepticism are also very insightful, and to my mind, deeply true.

    I do think that the smaller class sizes at a SLAC are a salient difference. It is more difficult to delude oneself on the effectiveness of one's assignments and teaching style at a SLAC--we get to know our students really well, and we can tell when they are unable to keep up with the readings, are not grasping the content, etc. and so we can adapt accordingly. We don't have the luxury of being in denial with respect to how much our students are learning. At large schools, the pressure to change your teaching style, or to cut down on the amount of reading you assign (when students can't keep up or don't follow) is much less. One might think that this leads to a better education at a bigger university, but I'm not so sure; what it does seem to lead to is highly stressed students, more cheating, Aderall abuse, not absorbing most of the readings or following the content, etc. For students who aren't exceptionally bright, I think that the small class sizes at a SLAC do make a significant difference in their quality of education.

    This isn't to deny, of course, the thrust of your post, which is that we have to teach with one eye toward preparing students for graduate study. But I do find I have more flexibility at a SLAC than I did when teaching at a (very) large state college.

  3. Thank you for this post. I find your reflections consoling as I am beginner in the wider academic world. Of course, my degrees are from places with little prestige and my work is limited to the role of the now quite popular nomadic part-timer.

    I am a little worried that one might feel compelled to adjust one's coursework to prepare students for entering philosophy graduate programs. I sincerely believe we do our students a grave disservice if we're trying to incubate them for professorhood. I wouldn't wish itinerant adjunctship or crushing debt on anyone.

    Philosophy reading and writing should, I hope, make us better. Maybe that is naive, but I like to think our communities might be better off if our nurses, doctors, lawyers, engineers, businesspersons, politicians, etc had taken a few philosophy courses. The coursework that serves that end probably needs to reflect nothing of what they do at the Ivies or the PGR-Elect. And that isn't to suggest philosophy (or even the humanities) has a monopoly on nourishing a student's conscience and attention, but I'd like to think at least it's a place in the curriculum where we can do so without having to feel bashful or offer excuses for it.

  4. As someone who attended a SLAC and then went on to philosophy graduate school, I find your characterization of "the contrast," though convenient for your narrative, completely alien. SLACs do highlight some sort of contrast, but it is certainly not, as you once thought:

    "universities are professionalized spaces, where one is dictated to by the professional norms, whereas at a liberal arts college one can be more free of that."

    I can't attest to what faculty were saying at Bryn Mawr, and I'll take your word that you and other faculty truly had/have this view. But I find it very hard to take seriously. Big universities are not simply professional schools, as even the biggest defender of SLACs will acknowledge. And SLACs don't (and shouldn't) want to hold students intellectually hostage to a few oddball academics who have inscrutable views about things in the name of academic freedom. I wanted to have the same exposure to what's going on in philosophy that my peers at big universities got. And I would've left my SLAC if I discovered that I was only getting exposure to certain esoteric views. And this is not because I aimed at going to philosophy grad school and I wanted 'pre-professional' training - I took some years off before deciding to go back. It's because I wanted to get a well-rounded education in philosophy and learn about how it is done today.

    I loved my SLAC education, because it offered a top education (by professors who could very well have ended up at Harvard and the like) in a smaller environment that allows certain students, like myself, to flourish. I agree, then, with the person you quoted in your last paragraph - the point of a SLAC is to offer a unique environment, not a unique education. (At least, I think this goes for the traditional top SLACs; other SLACs, like St. Johns, have a Great Books program and so do offer a unique education.) And I don't think that's a sad way of selling the greatness of a SLAC.

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  7. In spite of the fact that I don't have degrees from as lofty colleges, and the little, human sciences school where I educated is so far away your radar that I won't try naming it, my involvement in the scholarly community sounds like yours. I accomplished residency, however
    dependably felt the entire endeavor was a sort of extortion.

  8. In many countries, students have to decide their major when they apply for university. In contrast, a liberal arts education aims to provide Daily Drudge Report students with a broad and general range of knowledge. This is in addition to a major that students choose to study more in depth in the later years of university. Large universities such as the University of Chicago, Stanford and Yale have this liberal arts model at the undergraduate level.

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