Today Wabash announced the selection of its new president, Gregory Hess. Dr. Hess comes to us from Claremont McKenna College in California. I have to admit, upon reading their Wikipedia entry, it sounds like the sort of school that would have enraptured me as a high-school senior:
Claremont McKenna’s curricular emphasis is on its social sciences, particularly economics, government, international relations, and psychology. About forty percent of CMC students major in either government or economics…Another popular option for off-campus study is the Washington Program, in which students complete a full-time internship while taking government courses taught by CMC professors in Washington at night…77% percent of CMC students attend graduate school within five years of graduation, and those who choose to go straight to the workforce average a starting salary of $52,115.
…Good thing I didn’t find out about it sooner. It doesn’t even teach Latin!
But regardless, the Claremont system, of which CMC is a part of, is well-known nationally. Hopefully Dr. Hess can elevate Wabash to the stature of McKenna as a “niche” liberal arts school. His goal of making Wabash the “liberal arts college for men” was quite explicit during his talk.
I reviewed his address to the school for the Commentary. During the talk, I asked him what the liberal arts are. He gave me a fairly typical response: it’s about fundamental skills like reading, writing, and critical thinking, it’s about seeing problems from multiple perspectives, and it’s about the holistic development of the person.
All of these are well and good, but don’t really answer my question. One could seemingly study anything and call it “liberal arts,” as long as those ends are achieved. Couldn’t an intensive business program achieve them as well? The answer given was an outcome of the liberal arts, not their actual essence. Of course, people rarely give what I think is the correct answer: “the liberal arts is encountering the fundamental questions of human existence, framed by their respective disciplines.” For many, this is too spiritual. For most, it’s not practical enough. Everyone appreciates critical thinking skills, but who cares about your thoughts on existential questions? Students, even ones here, are often the first to dismiss such aims of the liberal arts.
We can’t really be blamed, though. The entire system of majors and minors has created an environment of specialization which prizes accordance to professional methodology over personal development. It also gives students the impression that majoring in something is a kind of qualification, a mark of knowledge or a preparation for a job. As we approach graduation, we start to realize how arbitrary most of our areas of study are, but by then, it’s too late.