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Op-Ed, Burlington Free Press, January 30, 2005

Why the Liberal Arts Matter for America’s Future

by Ellen McCulloch-Lovell

In the recent presidential election, 51 percent of young people turned out to vote—the highest percentage since 1972 when the voting age was lowered to 18. Even more impressive is the number of 18-24 year olds actively engaged in volunteering and working for social change. But 30 percent more students volunteered than voted—80 percent of incoming first year students, according to a recent survey from UCLA.

It is clear that many young people don’t see a connection between social activism and political participation. They believe they can change a child’s life through tutoring; they see working at a food pantry or retirement home as way to improve the lives of others. How can we give them the same confidence that their vote also can transform community and political life? How can we educate the next generation of citizens to see that voting selects political leaders who will in turn affect education, the economy and the lives of the poor?

Coming from more than 20 years of local and national activism to the presidency of Marlboro College, a small liberal arts college in rural Vermont, I believe more than ever that our colleges and universities need to be both training grounds for developing minds and schools for citizenship. A broad liberal arts education, with its emphasis on reasoning and analysis, teaches students how to think, how to express themselves, how to ask good questions, how to assess competing arguments, and how to create new ideas. A liberal arts education is crucial to the future of young voters and to American democracy.

Liberal arts colleges like Marlboro are dedicated to teaching students to think clearly, learn independently and participate in the community (important decisions are decided during campus-wide town meetings). Marlboro’s emphasis on individual freedom coupled with community involvement mirrors Vermont history: Vermont declared itself an independent republic in 1777 and remained so for 14 years; its constitution was the first to outlaw slavery and to found and fund a state university.

Through the liberal arts, students learn how people have addressed the tension between individual freedom and public responsibility throughout the ages. History teaches the lessons of the past, the advances and mistakes of previous generations. Literature, languages and the arts are gateways to understanding the lives of other people and cultures. Science, philosophy and psychology inform us about how the mind thinks. Sociology and economics teach us about human behavior and mutual dependency.

In an era in which a college degree has been billed as a necessary step to a paycheck, more than 60 percent of college students opt for professional programs instead of studying broadly in the liberal art curriculum. While professional programs provide students with specialized opportunities in their chosen fields, they are often at the expense of the mind-expanding exploration of how different disciplines and ideas intersect with and affect each other—the cornerstone of a liberal arts education.

The United States is a country founded on exploration and innovation. Liberal arts institutions are on the front lines of cultivating creative citizens who have the intellectual tools to understand, analyze, and solve the most intractable problems of today—including one that they have only recently inherited—terrorism.

We are also the oldest continuous democracy on the planet, with a proud tradition of liberal arts education that predates the American Revolution. There could be no more urgent cause than to educate future citizens to sustain that democracy. We need an education where we make ideas not ideologies, and prove Thomas Jefferson’s belief that “the people are the ultimate guardians of their own liberty.”

Ellen McCulloch-Lovell is president of Marlboro College in Marlboro, Vermont, and was formerly Deputy Assistant to President Clinton and Advisor to the First Lady on the Millennium, where she spearheaded historic preservation, educational, cultural and environmental programs.

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