From These Grounds
by William G. Durden ’71, President, Neil B. Weissman, Provost
June 29, 2010
Several months ago, a group of faculty, administrators and students began the task of drafting the strategic plan that will guide the college for the next five years. This is the third plan the college community has developed since 1999, and in many ways, it is the most challenging.
These are difficult times for higher education. The economic crisis has stretched the budgets of many families, causing them to question more than ever before the advisability of sending their children to a liberal-arts college where practicality and return on investment are not as immediately intuitive as at more preprofessional and vocationally driven institutions.
Our new strategic plan will directly address the value of a Dickinson liberal-arts education and reaffirm our steadfast commitment to our core mission—the education of undergraduates. At a time when institutions of higher learning are facing financial crises, are questioning—and even doubting themselves—Dickinson seeks to respond by deepening its commitment to a useful education in the liberal arts and sciences. It remains for our students and graduates as valid today as it was when asserted (but not implemented) during a financially and politically turbulent period in American and global history in the late 18th century.
We also hope the new plan will allow us to assert in a contemporary context the concept of “frontier pragmatism” that was so instrumental in shaping Dickinson’s distinctively American approach to education at the close of the Revolution. Frontier pragmatism is the product of a confluence of Quaker traditions that advocated civility and modesty toward high achievement; the strong work ethic of the Germans; and a Scots-Irish intentional, entrepreneurial spirit that emanated from the Scottish Enlightenment. Their contributions were enriched and advanced over the centuries by other cultural and ethnic influences. Frontier pragmatism is particularly well suited for a time that calls for innovative, dynamic thinking in a less-is-more environment.
This fundamental notion of a useful liberal-arts education that intentionally links liberal study with employment and public service in a democracy was, in fact, never fully embraced by America’s liberal-arts colleges, which opted instead for an approach that valued learning for learning’s sake. What, in fact, is old appears revolutionary today.
In these difficult times, other institutions may try to answer contemporary challenges through significant mission redefinition and/or the addition of new schools or branches. Dickinson, however, remains convinced of the value of its historic yet distinctive version of a residential, undergraduate education in the liberal arts. As we draft the new strategic plan, our goal will be the enrichment of what we already do so well—not the adoption of a different identity to meet short-term challenges.
It was heartening to read a recent commentary in Newsweek ironically titled “The Death of the Liberal Arts: How the Recession and Unemployment are Making Schools and Students Rethink the Value of an Education in the Humanities.”
The article asserts, “While the liberal-arts education may be on the wane nationwide, the most elite schools … remain committed to the ideal. These top schools are not tweaking their curriculums to add any preprofessional undergraduate programs. … As the economy rebounds, their students, ironically, may be in the best spot. While studying the humanities has become unfashionable and seemingly impractical, the liberal arts also teaches students to think big thoughts—big enough to see beyond specific college majors and adapt to a broader job market.”
We firmly believe that remaining steadfast in our approach and confident of our identity represents our best response to current and future challenges. We must never forget that our college was established during the most challenging of times for our nation. Then, as now, we must remain committed to continuing our tradition of offering our students a pragmatic, useful liberal-arts education that will prepare them for engaged and fulfilling lives of accomplishment and leadership in the service of our democratic society.