President's Column

Neither Foundry nor Mint

The media often casts the value of higher education as a commercial gain, a necessary step to social and economic security. We are shown the tremendous gaps in lifetime earnings between college and non-college graduates, as well as the additional benefits that accrue for earning a degree from one of America’s top colleges or universities, such as Bates.

Moreover, students and their families have been encouraged to come to higher education with a set of consumer expectations regarding convenience, service, and cost. They are paying so much for their education; it is not unexpected that they consider themselves consumers, the college the provider.

Regrettably, these emphases have implications that challenge the very core of the way we think about liberal education. More than a century ago, John Henry Cardinal Newman wrote The Idea of a University, arguing the importance of a residential community of students and teachers devoted to the intellect. College was to be “an alma mater, knowing her children one by one, not a foundry, or a mint, or a treadmill.” A fundamental challenge facing Bates, and other residential liberal arts and sciences colleges, is how to present the value of what we do and are. How do we communicate the engaging nature of the liberal arts experience? How do we discuss its worth, in broader terms than economic advancement? As costs at liberal arts and sciences colleges accelerate, the refrain, “What do you do, or offer, that is worth $31,400 a year?” is repeated with the expectation that the answer will be about income, rather than values.

Residential colleges of the liberal arts and sciences excel at making possible student learning and achievement for at least two reasons that may have little to do with one’s future earnings or with consumer expectations.

First, these colleges understand that achievement in disciplinary and interdisciplinary inquiry is a means to lay broad and deep foundations for a lifetime of choices and learning, not an end in itself. And, thereby, the emphasis must be on learning that is active, enduring, and individually centered.

Second, residential liberal arts and sciences colleges succeed at being small engaged communities, places for understanding and practicing the ethic of civic responsibility – and making that ethic a vital part of one’s life in the wider world.

A Bates education is all about getting students to adopt higher standards of excellence, getting them to appreciate that the life of the mind encourages discovery, especially of oneself. It is about students taking responsibility for learning – it is their activity, their engagement in a process that is so much more than the transfer of information from source to repository.

Bates asks students to liberate themselves. To challenge, question, and compete. And Bates asks students to serve – to recognize that learning points beyond oneself to obligations to others. These are not “customer-friendly” activities, as simple as purchasing a computer online. Indeed, these activities might fail most “customer-service satisfaction” indices. Yet Bates succeeds at preparing its students for both their lives and careers. Ninety-five percent of Bates graduates express satisfaction with their Bates education. Two-thirds of Bates alumni hold graduate degrees, and they often cite the rigor of their Bates education as a key factor in career success.

Students aren’t customers. They are activists who assert their own liberation. Faculty are not service providers. They are mentors, teachers, scholars, advisors, intellectual proponents and opponents, and often friends and models.

I recently sent to the Board of Trustees a copy of The Bates Daily,distributed each morning at breakfast. The Daily’s audience is primarily students, and most event descriptions are written by students.

The Nov. 3 issue, for example, noted dozens of events: the visit of a study-abroad representative from the University of Edinburgh; an invitation to stop by the Swahili Table in Commons “to talk and share stories about this wonderful East African language”; a fired-up call to “come get rowdy” and watch the field hockey team in the ECAC playoffs; an earnest announcement of the Rural Immersion Program during April break, taking students to the mountains of eastern Pennsylvania to serve the rural poor and adults with developmental disabilities; and a description of a series of events focusing on “the problems of refugees,” given immediacy by the possibility of war refugees settling in Lewiston-Auburn.

If you have the chance, take a moment to peruse the Daily online at Its vitality and tone are unmistakably Bates, speaking eloquently to student experiences that not only promote learning, but also connect and enrich the academic and extracurricular lives of our students.

I ask you to think with us regarding how we can effectively help ourselves and others to move beyond the consumer model in establishing the values of a Bates education. You – as alumni, faculty, staff, families, and friends of the College – appreciate its values and know that such values have always had more than extrinsic dimensions.

Bates is now engaged in a 10-year accreditation self-study that will examine the value of a liberal arts education at the College. The self-study will set new goals and directions for Bates for the coming decade.Bates solicits and welcomes input from alumni, parents, friends, and other interested parties about any or all of the standards of accreditation. Information regarding these standards, as well as guidelines for e-mail comments and feedback, is available through the Bates self-study Web site

Bates is accredited by the Commission on Institutions of Higher Education of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC).