As promised, here it is: the finalized, optimized Phi Beta Kappa speech (originally posted in early May, but if you’d like to just read one post of mine, I think this is it.)
“Colleges…can only highly serve us when they aim not to drill, but to create and set the hearts of their youth on flame.” That might just sound like another quote to begin a speech – but it bears repeating. “Colleges…can only highly serve us when they aim not to drill, but to create and set the hearts of their youth on flame.” At least that is what Ralph Waldo Emerson stated in a speech to the Phi Beta Kappa Society in 1837. The speech was aptly titled The American Scholar and would soon become the society’s literary magazine title as well. But we are here to discuss the outcomes to which a liberal arts college should aspire, not to have a history lesson. Or is that not the case?
I think we can all agree with Emerson’s statement that a college should seek to give its students both the ability and the inspiration to create. And yet at the same time, the very question we are here to discuss is asking about outcomes – whether jobs, graduate admissions, or fellowships. On one hand, we now have Emerson’s seemingly immeasurable ideals, and on the other hand, we have, and Colby is not alone in this, an innate desire to objectively measure how we are doing. So while it’s great to hear from intellectual A to Fareed Zakaria that the students are learning to think critically, the students also need jobs. While the outcome appears to either focus on teaching critical thinking skills or instead to focus on ranking pre and post collegiate success and statistics, perhaps this is not the case.
Unfortunately, for the sake of the media, the college’s rankings and the parents of the kids applying to Colby, it is difficult, too idealistic and improbable to assume we can cast off all numbers and pretend we’re a Montesorri school. The outcome that we keep hoping liberal arts colleges will aspire to is one that cannot be measured in the near term. There is no statistic to tell you which accepted students will create a groundbreaking technology. But the statistic telling us how many students are admitted per year and how many get jobs at bulge bracket banks does exist.
Fortunately, the solution is not necessarily black and white. By developing an environment that allows students to have their hearts set on flame and then get a job afterwards, a liberal arts college does not have to focus on an either/or distinction in the outcome it aspires towards. This, of course, begs the question: what kind of environment can erase that binary opposition?
First, I do not mean to dissuade a school like Colby from continuing to accept 2400 SAT students that will major in biochem and I certainly do not mean to dissuade accepting students that will major in Econ and get jobs at bulge bracket banks. I do mean a college should be seeking out the kids that may not be going straight into finance or med school and find the kids that are different, and have varying interests, and then by throwing all these different kids into the right environment here at Colby, in their four years here they can create and build a body of knowledge and skills that will prepare them to live a successful and inventive life.
Then, once the students are in this environment, offer them an extraordinary breadth of options such as Jan Plan, study abroad and educational opportunities outside the standard classroom experience. This means that it should come to no surprise that a Physics major is an athlete, or that a Chem major is in improve, or that a Philosophy major is taking Corporate Finance (even if he seems to get a C on every exam). Such an environment will produce a cross-pollination of ideas, skills and most importantly a diverse and healthy community.
Students will still have the necessary skills to get jobs and because they have also developed skills that cannot be measured: creativity, knowledge of failure, teamwork, they will do more than get a job. They will flourish. It’s just that instead of focusing on the outcome being to just get jobs or even worse, to not understand the world outside of a classroom – the means instead begin to blend with the ends. The outcome still includes getting jobs, but the outcome begins in the admissions process, the outcome is the environment that produces students who will do more than get jobs. No! they will do more than just get jobs. They will get an entry on the notable alumni page on Wikepedia. Now that is an outcome we can all get down with.
Perhaps you are agreeing with me at this point, but still wondering how we can do either one or the other? Well, I would like to suggest again that the outcome is not an either or question, but a both and question. Both and? That sounds like Professor Bryant about to go on a tangent in English Theory, not a practical solution. But that’s exactly it.
In an essay on start up ideas, the venture capitalist and Y Combinator founder, Paul Graham quotes Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance saying, “You want to know how to paint a perfect painting? It’s easy. Make yourself perfect and then just paint naturally.” He then follows up that quote by saying, “empirically, the way to have good start up ideas is to become the sort of person who has them.” Thus, the outcome a liberal arts college should aspire to for its students is to become the type of place that allows students to become the type of place that can be successful both measurably and immeasurably. The type of place that sets the hearts of our youth on flame, so we can go out into the world and paint a perfect painting.