Letter to the "Chronicle of Higher Education"

President Elaine Tuttle Hansen

(Editor’s note: Headlined “Liberal-Arts Education for the Real World,” a letter from President Hansen ran on pages B4 and B17 of the Chronicle of Higher Education of Sept. 5, 2003. Her original unabridged text follows.)

To the Editor:

William G. Durden’s discussion of “The Liberal Arts as a Bulwark of Business Education” in the July 18 Chronicle Review raises a provocative issue that we have been discussing here at Bates College as well. Our experience, however, suggests a somewhat different view of the relationship today between liberal education and the business sector. 

Durden begins by indicting colleges and universities “with liberal arts at their core” for not serving “as an improving, enlightening force” against the evils of corporate America. He alleges that faculty condemn and embarrass “countless” students who choose business careers, and he charges “leadership” with ignoring a more “useful” version of the liberal arts promulgated by the earliest founders of American higher education and with promoting an elitist, “separatist” perspective.

Several aspects of this argument are puzzling to me. In over two decades as a faculty member and administrator at Haverford College and now as president of Bates, I have worked with many alums who have prominent careers in finance and industry, and I have met none who were abashed by their business success. Proud of the fact that they have been able to bring intellectual and ethical virtues fostered by their undergraduate experience into corporate careers, they find time to help future generations through their philanthropy and volunteer efforts on behalf of liberal education.

While I too have been inspired by the visionaries who built places like Bates, careful study of their writings suggests that we must be selective in our reliance on them. Their vision of educating Americans to build a democratic society was and is noble, but their ideas about which Americans should receive this education were narrow. The promise of higher education in America today is access for all; we have not achieved that egalitarian goal, but we are far enough along to know that the proud legacy of our founding fathers has to be understood and applied with a sense of historical context.

Finally, when I look at my own institution and others like it, I cannot see the “separatist” ivory towers that Durden decries. Instead I find increasingly more emphasis on just the sort of things he calls for. Service-learning and civic engagement and preparation for leadership are hallmarks of Bates and many liberal arts colleges I know. Half of the student body at Bates is involved in community-based learning, research, and outreach in any given year, with 1,700 students spending over 60,000 hours in the Lewiston-Auburn community. Likewise, our students are highly active in career internships. It is rare for them to enter the business world without using our alumni to test their career interests, and the entire Bates alumni database is available so students can contact, for example, all the alums who work for a particular company. We have found enthusiastic responses from young alumni for Bates Business Networking groups, and we have received a foundation grant to explore entrepreneurial education on the liberal arts campus.

Rather than faulting liberal education for failing to prevent greed and corruption in corporate America, we need to do a better job of communicating what the CEOs who prefer to hire liberal arts graduates already know: Although our expertise rests in academic disciplines and our worth to society has much to do with the intrinsic human need to learn, we have many “practical” programs, and access to the broad learning achieved through a liberal education gives our graduates a realistic understanding of the complexity of the world and prepares them for lives satisfying to themselves and useful to others.

Elaine Tuttle Hansen
Bates College
Lewiston, Maine