The future of small liberal arts colleges — “well trained minds & good hearts”

newgardenboardingschool Faculty & Staff New Garden Boarding School 1886

We have occasion to be concerned about the future of small, independent liberal arts colleges.

The June 28 issue of The Economist tees up the issue with an editorial and articles. Efficiency and affordability argue for large institutions and massive online courses. Public funding seems most likely to target large public institutions and curricula that prepare students for jobs.

Are independent, residential and small, liberal arts colleges simply obsolete? Should they seek to tag along in the turn towards technology, scale, distance learning and workforce preparation? Maybe. Or, maybe accommodations can be made that will preserve residential learning communities and achieve affordability. Maybe there remains a role for colleges that prepare human beings, in person, for fruitful, satisfying lives —  teaching practical skills for more than simply jobs?

Getting this right requires a recurrence to fundamental principles. What are liberal arts colleges for?

The vision of Nereus Mendenhall is a good place to start. Nereus Mendenhall kept New Garden Boarding School open during the Civil War and transformed it into Guilford College afterwards. His vision? “To produce men and women with well-trained minds and good hearts; people who can think for themselves and not be blown about by every wind of doctrine.”

That is a vision – a mission worth sustaining – at Guilford College and beyond. It’s bigger than job training and more than knowledge acquisition. The economics of it are challenging, but, as Quakers say, way will open.

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