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The Future of Liberal Arts at Dartmouth

Philip J. Hanlon, Dartmouth College's 18th president, holds up the Dartmouth Charter at his inauguration last week. He was among the college officials who spoke about the value of a liberal arts education. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

Philip J. Hanlon, Dartmouth College's 18th president, holds up the Dartmouth Charter at his inauguration last week. He was among the college officials who spoke about the value of a liberal arts education. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

Almost since they came into being, the liberal arts and their preeminence in higher education have been threatened by those who consider them impractical, expensive and ineffectual.

There’s reason to believe that the liberal arts college is endangered in an entirely new way, menaced by distance learning and other technological advances, and by the high sticker price of a four-year degree.

“The national debate isn’t going well for the liberal arts,” Dartmouth’s Dean of the Faculty Michael Mastanduno said at the start of a panel discussion on “The Liberal Arts at Dartmouth: What Lies Ahead?” that took place last week as part of the inauguration of Dartmouth President Philip J. Hanlon.

Judging from the panel discussion and Hanlon’s inaugural address, what lies ahead includes greater use of technology, greater cost containment and continued expansion, including further growth in graduate education.

Panel members, notably history professor Leslie Butler and English professor Donald Pease, pointed to the contentious history of the liberal arts, both at Dartmouth and in the United States.

The liberal arts came into being in the late 19th century, when reformers sought to spread the benefits of higher education to a wider population, Butler said. Traditional colleges that offered a more or less classical education that included instruction in Latin and Greek and compulsory chapel relaxed their requirements and encouraged students to study one subject intensively while sampling broadly from other fields of study. At the same time, the land-grant colleges that were popping up in farm fields across the land were offering similar curricula.

“It’s really a period of just staggering, enormous change,” Butler said, change driven by industrialization, immigration and urbanization.

At Dartmouth, the prime mover was President William Jewett Tucker, who from 1893 to 1909 ended compulsory chapel, oversaw construction of 11 new buildings and vastly expanded the college, from 350 students to nearly 1,100, Pease said. He also required students to declare a major.

“Dartmouth had to liberate itself from its own prior understanding of what it was,” Pease said.

He also cited presidents John Sloane Dickey, 1945 to 1970, who founded the college’s Tucker Foundation to oversee students’ spiritual development and instituted a Great Issues course, and John Kemeny, who shepherded the college through the admission of women in the early 1970s, as examples of Dartmouth putting the liberal arts into practice and changing with the times.

In recent times, perhaps the most ardent defender of the liberal arts was the late James O. Freedman, Dartmouth president from 1987 to 1998. In his inaugural address, Freedman cast Dartmouth as a “commonwealth of liberal learning,” a school with the scale and collegiality to emphasize “the unity of knowledge and experience” across the many subjects taught on campus.

Dartmouth College has topped national rankings for the past five years in its commitment to undergraduate teaching, and much of the panel discussion consisted of a sustained celebration of the value of the liberal arts, with relatively little discussion of the challenges it faces.

“I think the great things about the liberal arts (education) … it really teaches us to question, to explore broadly, to not accept a particular truth as a given,” said Joseph Helble, dean of Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering.

Annette Gordon-Reed, a Dartmouth graduate who is now a Harvard University professor and a Dartmouth trustee, noted that a liberal arts education stimulates critical thinking across disciplines. The STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and math — have had strong backing, Gordon-Reed said, but it’s essential that the humanities receive the same support. “It’s so obvious to me that this is the core of civilization,” she said.

So what’s the problem with the liberal arts? In a brief interview after the panel, the only issue that made Mastanduno wince was cost.

Again, Freedman’s tenure is instructive. For 1996-7, undergraduate tuition was $21,846 and the total cost was $28,233. At the time, Freedman said “I can’t believe the middle class will watch itself be priced out of education.”

Indeed, many fear that’s exactly what has happened over the past 25 years. A year at Dartmouth now costs more than $60,000.

Asked to summarize the panel discussion, Hanlon stepped up from the front row of Spaulding Auditorium and said that “since the Gilded Age, I don’t think we’ve seen anything quite like this transformation.”

In his address to the college the next day, Hanlon started to hint at the direction Dartmouth will follow. The first major initiative he announced is the creation of a Society of Fellows program to bring top post-doctoral students to Hanover. For decades, Dartmouth’s graduate programs have been an avenue for growth. Graduate education brings in more grant money and graduate programs are easier to expand than the undergraduate college.

In September 1997, when Freedman announced he would step down the following June, his list of achievements, sent out by the college’s PR office, included “desired moderate growth ... in both the number of and enrollment in graduate programs in the Arts and Sciences,” which are outside the college’s preprofessional schools in business, engineering and medicine. He added two graduate programs, and enrollment increased from 171 to 254 students.

According to the college’s website, there are now 25 graduate programs under the Arts and Sciences umbrella, with 1,214 students, still a fraction of the 4,200 undergraduates at Dartmouth , but a growing fraction. Including the professional schools, Dartmouth has 2,100 graduate students.

Critics of past administrations have fretted that expanding graduate programs would dilute Dartmouth’s concentration on undergraduate liberal arts. The college’s continued recognition for undergraduate teaching seems to answer this claim, but the prospect of graduate students, in place of professors, teaching Dartmouth undergrads — a source of complaints at other prestigious universities — might bring it back to the fore.

“I think Dartmouth has the ability to have multiple identities,” Mastanduno said. For example, it is both isolated, yet integrated into the world, he said. The liberal arts at Dartmouth are under threat “less from graduate education than from cost,” Mastanduno said.

The financial challenges to the liberal arts are not going to be easy to resolve, a conundrum Hanlon acknowledged at his inauguration.

“We face these swift-moving currents against a backdrop of a national crisis of access and affordability in higher education,” he said. “The historic funding model for colleges and universities — where too often the cost of attendance grew at rates significantly above inflation — that model is unsustainable.”

One widely touted solution is the use of MOOCs, or massive open online courses. Education reformers see them as a way to spread liberal education more broadly and at much lower cost. Hanlon and others said they foresee greater deployment of technology at Dartmouth.

But the Dartmouth professors said they don’t envision MOOCs or any technology replacing the residential college, where students learn from each other as much as from their professors. If courses distributed on the Internet are used at all, professors said, it should be to free up time and resources for interactions between professors and small groups of students.

It almost goes without saying that belief in the value of the liberal arts remains strong at Dartmouth. But some of the issues facing higher education aren’t going away, and those issues are substantial enough to generate the sort of enduring doubts that have trailed behind what Freedman called “liberal education.”

Among some of the doubters of the liberal arts that she cited, Leslie Butler also included an early defense of the liberal arts. Social reformer Thomas Wentworth Higginson wrote in 1867 that the liberal arts are a “perpetual protest against the strong tendency to make all American education hasty and superficial. They stand for a learning which makes no money, but helps to make men.”

The burdensome cost of a liberal arts education means money dominates the conversation, a conversation beginning anew under Dartmouth’s new president.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3219.