Message from the President: Liberal Arts and the American Experience

Jan. 17, 2011

To our alumni friends:

Life happens in cycles for all God’s creations, including liberal arts colleges. From time to time liberal arts colleges find themselves in the position of defending their mission — odd as it may be to have to "defend" the pursuit of knowledge.

Not long ago I had the privilege, along with hundreds of presidential counterparts, of listening to the acclaimed journalist and author Jon Meacham, himself a product of a liberal arts education (Sewanee: The University of the South),hold forth on this subject. Former editor of Newsweek magazine and noted authority on religion, Meacham has written books about Andrew Jackson, the relationship between FDR and Winston Churchill, and the role of religion in the founding of the United States.

Meacham counseled the college presidents not to be overly defensive about the liberal arts "value proposition." After all, he said, liberal arts colleges have a very strong story to tell — our history is replete with graduates who, armed with broad knowledge and trained to think critically, went on to create new ideas, new companies, new inventions, new jobs and new wealth. In other words, our institutions are less ivory towers than intellectual engines that have been central to America’s prosperity. The problem, he said, is we just need to do a better job of explaining that connection.

But Meacham also cautioned us not to focus solely on education and economic well-being. Liberal arts colleges are also crucial to national civility and a common understanding of America’s history and core principles. Those principles come under assault from time to time - or at least become the subject contentious debate - and we are seeing that today on our campuses and on the streets of America.

Colleges have a responsibility to ensure that our future CEOs, legislators, even presidents, grasp just what has brought the United States to where it is today. They must know the mistakes that were made, certainly, but also the breathtaking chances that were taken to propel us forward. America is a nation quite literally built on bold ideas and bold actions: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, self-governance, equal rights, the Louisiana Purchase, the CivilWar, the G.I. Bill of Rights, Social Security, you name it. It takes knowledge to grasp that heritage; it takes imagination to anticipate the next great idea.

Such ideas are the stock in trade of liberal arts colleges, and we are proud of it.

In closing on this idea of civic responsibility, Meacham cited an inspirational quote from one of my favorite writers, E.B. White, and I repeat it here in case you’ve never encountered it.

In 1943, in the throes of World War II, the Writers’ War Board asked a number of eminent authors to define "the meaning of democracy."

White responded thusly: "Surely the board knows what democracy is. It is the line that forms on the right. It is the don't in don't shove. It is the hole in the stuffed shirt through which the sawdust slowly trickles, the dent in the high hat. Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time. It is the feeling of privacy in the voting booths, the feeling of communion in the libraries, the feeling of vitality everywhere.

"Democracy is the letter to the editor. Democracy is the score at the beginning of the ninth. It is an idea which hasn't been disproved yet, a song the words of which have not gone bad. It's the mustard on the hot dog and the cream in the rationed coffee. Democracy is a request from a War Board, in the middle of the morning in the middle of a war, wanting to know what democracy is."

White, incidentally, was a product of Cornell University.

Tom