Closing of Sweet Briar College alarms, brings liberal arts into question

Kelly Bergh March 25, 2015 0

Almost a century ago, in 1921, Albert Einstein emphasized to Thomas Edison what the majority of our country today seems to have forgotten: “The value of an education in a liberal arts college is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks.”

A major benefit of attending small, private liberal arts colleges has always been the opportunity to receive a broad education — one worthy of the ancient Greeks, who strove to provide their students with the skills necessary to fulfill their civic duties. Rhetoric- and arithmetic-based seminars trained students to use their knowledge to socialize and participate, a practice considered to make us “well-rounded.”

But how far is being “well-rounded” going to get us?

Our generation is suffocating under the pressure put on us by panicking parents. “We just want you to get a job,” they say. “What are you going to do with a degree in art history?” There is so much worry coming from the world in regards to our educations that everyone seems to forget that the application of our degrees is more important than acquiring them. We are pestered to be versatile growing up but criticized for pursuing well-roundedness at a post-secondary institution.

I chose to major in English because I recognize that my skills lie in the world of data analysis and interpretation, not collection or application. In attending a liberal arts college, I am making a statement: I am confident that I can work hard enough to succeed despite, or because of, having a degree in writing. I will be able to survive because I value language and communication enough to respect it, not to fear it.

Unfortunately, this outlook seems to be the exception, not the rule.

Sweet Briar College announced at the beginning of March that they will be closing before the end of August due to “insurmountable financial challenges.” Every student and staff member at the all-female private school in Virginia, known for the impressive cultural events it hosts on its 3,250-acre campus and its horseback riding program, must find a new school to attend beginning in the fall of 2015.

As the friend of a current Sweet Briar student, I find it extremely frustrating to hear that the 760 girls expecting to graduate from the school over the next four years are being forced to transfer. At exactly this time last year, my friend Sydney and I both applied to college as seniors in high school. How is it fair that she must go through the process again, and so soon? How is it right that these students, who chose to put their trust and future in the hands of this college, are being academically abandoned?

Sweet Briar’s closing shows us that money isn’t the only factor plaguing the liberal arts. They had a $94 million dollar endowment in 2014. Elizabethtown College’s last reported endowment (in 2013) was just over $61 million. Our solution to the economic downturn: increasing 2015-16 academic year tuition by 4.25 percent. Theirs: shutting down.

So the issue with funding can be dealt with — that’s been proven. Several colleges fitting the small, private, rural mold have survived much worse. The most overwhelming (albeit most overlooked) conflict is the severe lack of appreciation for and faith in the liberal arts. Well-roundedness is severely taken for granted. People are no longer interested in colleges like Sweet Briar and Etown because they misjudge the applicability of the lessons we learn. Even those who still care about the liberal arts don’t necessarily know how to apply the skills such schools afford us, allowing themselves to suffer in this data-driven world. Many don’t recognize the value of the opportunities we are and will be given because they misunderstand what it means to receive an education in the liberal arts.

So what does Sweet Briar’s shutdown mean for Etown? Hopefully nothing. Hopefully this will be only a blip in the fate of liberal arts colleges. But the worry is there: Is Sweet Briar’s closing offering us an accurate picture of what to expect in the future, with our admission and retention rates stagnating while our tuition increases?

This very well may be the beginning of the institutional collapse of liberal arts, but we will not be able to label it as such until we’re in the thick of it.

If anything, we can take comfort in knowing that Etown isn’t giving up just yet. Sweet Briar has fallen, but the liberal arts still stand, growing more important daily. In order not to follow suit, our school, like many others, is adapting. We are embracing interdisciplinary practices, rejecting stigma while promoting critical thinking. Through our on-campus jobs and internships, we are learning how to apply the skills we learn in the classroom to society. Our professors’ publications provide us with tangible productions of the world of academia. The core courses so many students dread help us to understand human nature.

There will always be a place in the world for the liberal arts. As long as there are humans walking the earth, there will be a desire and necessity to study them and their relationships.

The humanities are not dead; they’re simply neglected.


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