Remarks: College, Community, and the Liberal Arts

John ChurchillJohn Churchill

It is an honor and a pleasure to be with you all today, on the happy occasion of the inauguration of Mauri Ditzler as the sixteenth president of Albion College. I have known Mauri Ditzler for a long time, as a scholar, provost, president, friend, farmer, and discussion partner. I can tell you that you have made a superb choice. Congratulations all around!

Sometimes an object of comparison can be illuminating, so let me begin with one. I first saw light, and have spent most of my life, in Arkansas. Arkansas and Michigan might not, on initial consideration, seem to have much in common. But they came into the Union together, as balancing Southern and Northern states, in 1836 and 1837. Arkansas has no Detroit and no Great Lakes, but the two states have freeways, forests, factories, and farms—and small towns—in common. And in more than a few of those small towns, a tradition of fine small colleges. I spent a long time at one of those, Hendrix College, an institution that left its founding location and moved, in 1890, to Conway, Arkansas.

When the word was out that the College would move from its original home, Little Rock and a bevy of smaller burgs made bids. In Conway, a Civil War veteran and local merchant, Capt. W. W. Martin, put up $75,000 of his own money. He forced the saloons to close, promised to pave the muddy streets, and corralled the town's hogs. Having moved his store to Conway after the railroad came through town, Capt. Martin saw landing the college as critical to the future.

He was right. Conway did land Hendrix, and two more colleges to boot within a few years. Prosperity followed and prosperity continues. The interstate later traced the track of the railroad, and then came the river navigation system. Raw material now arrives in the factories from Japan. Finished product moves out to the world. I moved there in 1977 to a town of 17,000. Today Conway flourishes with 60,000 residents, with manufacturing, retail commerce, professional services, and one of the country's biggest data management companies. Capt. Martin would be pleased, and maybe is pleased, under his big rock on the Hendrix campus, under the windows of the hall where every spring, Phi Beta Kappa's Beta Chapter of Arkansas inducts its new members. By the way, I am well aware that Albion's chapter of Phi Beta Kappa is the Beta Chapter of Michigan. Hurrah for Betas!

What Capt. Martin saw in 1890 remains true today, in Michigan as in Arkansas: a fine, small, liberal arts college is a critical ingredient in a vibrant, flourishing, successful community. Why would that be true?

The best way I can answer that question is to tell you what Phi Beta Kappa is doing with our National Arts & Sciences Initiative. You know that Phi Beta Kappa's essential purpose, since 1776, has been to honor and advocate excellence in the arts and sciences. We are emphasizing now the advocacy side of that dual purpose, and we have undertaken to reshape the conversation in America about the purposes of higher education.

We have all seen the headlines about the importance of making college "pay off," and the comparisons of entry-level salaries by college major, and we have seen the not-very-subtle reduction of the purpose of higher education down to a very narrow and shortsighted exclusively economistic metric. Can this degree get you a job right now, and what will it pay?

Please understand that I understand that preparation for a remunerative career is a very important part of college. But it isn't just the first job that counts, it's the career. And there is life beyond paid work. There is citizenship, civic life, family life, and the fullness of human experience. Phi Beta Kappa's aim is to enlarge the discussion of the purposes of higher education, deepening the economic focus from the first job to the whole career, and broadening the scope of things across a wider and more inclusive spectrum of human goods.

So what are we saying? Three things. First, liberal arts and sciences enlarge opportunity. Full access to the ladder of opportunity depends not only on training for the first job, but also on education that equips people for all of life. In an egalitarian society, that means that the benefits of arts and sciences education should be as widely accessible as possible, because everyone deserves a shot at this kind of learning, and everyone can benefit in some way.

Phi Beta Kappa believes in the intrinsic value of studying arts and sciences for their own sake, but it's also important to say that arts and sciences education provides lifelong economic opportunity in a constantly shifting job market. Students applying for college today can expect to hold a variety of jobs through the course of their careers. A recent study by the U.S. Census Bureau found that young Baby Boomers have held, by age 46, an average of 11.3 jobs. We can't predict how many jobs lie in wait for current students. But we can predict that their ability to thrive professionally—and to live meaningfully—will depend on their capacity to grasp new situations, their flexibility in adapting to them, and their resilience in repeating the process. By engaging students in a variety of subject matters, disciplines, and different points of view, the arts and sciences provide education for the unpredictable. You can be trained to cope with the predictable. Liberal arts is preparation to flourish with the unpredictable.

Multiple surveys, including research sponsored by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, have shown that businesses seek employees with the skills and capacities nurtured in the arts and sciences. Those skills include communication capacities of reading, writing, speaking, and listening; critical and analytical thinking abilities; intellectual flexibility and resilience; the capacity to entertain multiple perspectives; the cultivation of sympathetic imagination; and so on.

In what human endeavor are these attributes not needed? It is time to replace the English major/barista jokes with an understanding of the great career preparation involved in acquiring these skills. I know one English major who runs a multistate service region for a major communications company whose name you see daily. Emily Dickinson helped get him there.

Arts and sciences education expands opportunity by enlarging our vision so that we can see opportunity and recognize it, by increasing our flexibility to meet it, by enhancing our creativity to deal with it in novel ways, and by making the unforeseen manageable, not upsetting. In these ways it enhances our career options, our capacities as citizens, and our abilities to seek meaning and value in a changing world. Education of this sort, and not just first-job training, should be accessible to everyone.

The second thing Phi Beta Kappa is saying, in our National Arts & Sciences Initiative, is that the arts and sciences drive innovation and ingenuity. As the national and world economies evolve, securing new jobs and crafting fulfilling lives will depend critically on ingenuity—the ability to see things in new ways, generating creative ideas, products, and services; and on innovation—the capacity and willingness to create novel means to success. Businesses competing on a world stage will increasingly need leaders and employees who can create, innovate, and collaborate at home and across cultures.

The New York Times has reported that, even before the late financial upheaval, "business executives operating in a fast-changing, global market had begun to understand the value of managers who could think more nimbly across multiple frameworks, cultures and disciplines." (Reported by Lane Wallace.)

According to a 2012 Hart Research Survey sponsored by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, 95 percent of employers said their companies put a priority on hiring people with the intellectual and interpersonal skills that will help them contribute to innovation in the workplace. The liberal arts and sciences foster the exercise of imagination and creativity, fundamental ingredients in innovation.

Success in a globalized world requires knowledge of and adaptability to other cultures. Students of the arts and sciences are accustomed to engaging with widely disparate subjects in a variety of disciplines. They are well positioned to see the world broadly and to act boldly.

According to the 2011 book Academically Adrift, students majoring in the liberal arts and sciences see "significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills over time than students in other fields of study." Phi Beta Kappa believes firmly in the intrinsic value of studying arts and sciences for their own sake, but we are also keenly aware that higher education faces a crossroads as parents, students, and decision makers focus on the cost of education and the return to be expected from that investment. For that reason, in this "sound bite" culture of concise expression, we at Phi Beta Kappa are raising our voices to say to policymakers and business leaders that arts and sciences drive just the ingenuity and innovation we need.

The arts and sciences have made their mark in American business culture. An impressive number of innovative companies were founded by arts and sciences graduates. I invite you to check out a partial list in Phi Beta Kappa's infographic, called "Charts & Sciences," accessible on our website.

While some American political leaders question the value of the arts and sciences, countries like Singapore and China see an arts and sciences education as key to innovation. To produce global leaders, reformers in these countries are trying to emulate American liberal education to encourage more innovative and creative thinking. What an irony it would be if America stops cultivating its seedbed of creativity in the liberal arts and sciences, just as their power is recognized and taken up abroad.

The third message Phi Beta Kappa brings to the conversation—after opportunity and innovative ingenuity—is this: The arts and sciences are an investment in America. I have spoken so far of their economic value—investment in an obvious, literal sense. But the arts and sciences are also an investment in the country's life as a democracy. To be a participatory citizen, you need to make choices well, and you need to make good choices. Process and outcome both matter.

Several years ago, when we asked large numbers of old members of Phi Beta Kappa about what had been of most lasting value about their liberal arts experiences, they gave a consistent answer. They talked about gaining deliberative skills—the ability to think things through, critically and analytically, but also sympathetically and imaginatively. They talked about the skills of intellect and capacities for sympathy that allowed them to understand divergent points of view, even indwell them imaginatively, and cope with social terrain marked by diversity and even antagonism. If it is the dream of democracy that the great multifarious multitude should find, if not common ground, at least accommodation and ways forward through persistent difference, then the skills cultivated when people are open to the reception of facts, open to weighing what the facts mean, and open to talking that out in measured ways, are skills essential to the flourishing—maybe the survival—of democracy.

We are not through figuring out, in this country, what the grand phrase e pluribus unum quite means. It seems less and less likely that it will ever mean that difference disappears into indistinguishable sameness, and it seems unlikely that that would ever have been a good thing. But if it means finding a shared process for participation by disparate stakeholders, if it means the continuity of that process from one historic moment to the next and the next through change, and if it means recognizing that even as the process itself changes, there is a skein of commonality from the beginning, stretching into an emerging future, then realizing the promise of e pluribus unum seems uniquely dependent on maintenance and refinement of the very skills and capacities that advocates and beneficiaries alike of the arts and sciences have always claimed for them.

So what is the role of a place like Albion College, with its character, its commitments, and its history, as southern Michigan reasserts its place in a changing Midwest, in a changing world? In a nutshell, this college is a driver of opportunity. It is a wellspring of ingenuity and innovation. It is an investment in America and, most specifically, an investment in that sector of the country that is the City of Albion and its environs.

When the settlers at Spring Arbor Township, ten miles from here, got their charter from the Michigan legislature, and when Jesse Crowell donated the 60 acres that gave Albion College a home on this very ground, and made possible the laying of the first cornerstone here in 1841, surely they were motivated by the same vision that animated Capt. Martin in Conway, Arkansas, a few decades later. It is a vision of progress and community, a vision of the future and prosperity, and a vision premised on the idea that education—specifically education in the liberal arts and sciences—is a public good, an essential ingredient in the sort of place we want our hometowns, and our country, to be.

So congratulations, Albion College. Congratulations, Mauri. And congratulations to the City of Albion: you will flourish as they do.