Why the Liberal Arts?

The Inauguration of Randolph’s 10th president celebrates the importance of the liberal arts in pursuit of the life more abundant

A torrential rain fell on Lynchburg in mid-September 1893. A young woman stepped off a streetcar and onto a rickety wooden platform on Rivermont Avenue. She stared at the stepping stones that led through red mud and up the hill to the unfinished building that would become Main Hall.

The young woman—one of the first women in the mid- Atlantic to receive the same kind of liberal arts education as her male peers—would begin her studies the following day at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College. But on this afternoon she just wanted to cross the road without soiling her clothes.

“The wind sobs and sighs as if in sympathy with the desolate-looking little figure,” she later wrote, describing the scene. The girl’s father and William Waugh Smith, founder of the new College, each took an arm and carried her “across the mud, that awful, sticky, red Virginia mud.”

Fast forward 120 years, and Smith’s ninth successor, Bradley W. Bateman, donned jeans and a T-shirt to help the College’s new students move in. Again, rain was pouring, but brick walkways and well-established grass gave students cleaner walking paths.

Although separated by 12 decades and many changes—including desegregation and a transition to coeducation—these two scenes at Randolph had much in common. Both were like a rite of passage for two new college presidents, and both took place at a time when liberal arts education faced challenges and changes.

In Smith’s day, the challenges centered on offering an equal education to women. As Bateman began his presidency in 2013, the challenges related to a national, critical conversation on the relevance of liberal education. For several years, politicians and media pundits have highly criticized the liberal arts.

When Bateman took the helm of Randolph College, the staunch proponent for the liberal arts made it his goal to push back. Answering the question, “Why the liberal arts?” became a personal passion for him—and Randolph College.

“It is a time in American history when liberal arts education is under scrutiny or attack in a way that it has not been previously,” he said during a symposium that was part of his Inauguration in April. “I wanted this weekend to step back from that criticism. And I wanted to talk together about why liberal arts education is so important.”

The liberal arts can be hard to define. “I sometimes have said that liberal education is like poetry—it doesn’t have a fixed definition,” Bateman said. “Yet, we keep finding a central sense of ourselves to talk about.” The history of the liberal arts goes back 2,500 years to the days of the ancient Greeks and Romans. The term refers to the education given to prepare people for public life. “A citizen was obligated to master rhetoric, the art of persuasion and public speaking; to have skill in forensic science, or the art of defense in court; and in making juridical decisions,” explained Jerry Ward, a renowned scholar of African American literature who spoke during the Inauguration symposium. “The citizen had to render service.”

However, the name the Romans gave this type of education—artes liberales—referred to its original limitation: it was offered only to men who were born into freedom and whose wealth gave them the luxury to avoid menial work. Women, slaves, and lower-class tradesmen need not apply.

It took centuries for that to change, Bateman said. “It was not until liberal education took its characteristically American form in the small, residential college that the idea was formed that liberal education might also be about extending freedom to others: to those born into slavery, to women, and to the oppressed of any kind,” he said. Although some colleges opened their doors to women in the 19th century, there was still significant opposition to the idea of providing women a liberal arts education. After two attempts to admit women to Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia, William Waugh Smith set out to start a new college.

He faced an uphill battle as many questioned the practical purpose of giving women a four-year education. But for more than a century, the College answered those questions by showing that women were capable of not only receiving an excellent education, but also making use of what they learned. The curriculum eschewed strictly practical training in favor of education that freed the women’s minds. Pearl S. Buck, a member of the Class of 1914 who later won the Nobel Prize, wrote in one memoir, “We were not corrupted by home economics or dressmaking or cookery or any such soft substitute for hard thinking. … Any educated woman can read a cookbook or follow a dress pattern. It is the brain that needs education.”

The College also was founded at a time when college curricula were going through major shifts. Colleges were being pressured to focus more on research and hyper specialization. Larger universities arose to meet that demand, increasing pressure on small colleges.

In those days, “colleges were all very small,” said Martha Hemwall, a well-known expert on academic advising who also spoke during the symposium. “The curriculum offered very few choices. In fact, majors didn’t even make an appearance in higher education until the early 20th century.”

She added that students enjoyed close relationships with faculty, many of whom lived on campus, and provided academic as well as personal guidance. This changed as universities grew larger. “Faculty and student relationships then became more formal and systematic,” Hemwall explained. Advising became more utilitarian and focused on checking off graduation requirements.

“Fortunately, smaller liberal arts colleges have escaped some of this,” Hemwall said, adding that academic advising helps students connect their courses to the mission of liberal education. “It is not about registering for classes.”

The close relationship between students and faculty is familiar to many who have studied at the College. It also is familiar to the many students Bateman has encountered during his decades as an educator. One of those students was David White.

White signed up for a microeconomics course during his last undergraduate semester at Grinnell College. Although he had just been named a Rhodes Scholar, White was also a second semester senior. Speaking at Bateman’s Inauguration, he recalled telling his new economics professor, “You may not see me every day in class.”

He was met by an unexpected, understanding response. “That doesn’t mean that we don’t have things to teach one another,” Bateman told him. “So let’s you and I keep talking.”

“A friendship was born, as well as a mentoring relationship,” said White, adding that he continued attending Bateman’s class.

As a panelist during the Inauguration symposium, White discussed the question of “Why Serve?” In college, he sought a way to serve the world. Today, he continues that service by leading a union that protects the rights of actors and other performing artists.

White said a liberal education is the best at helping students prepare for public service. “Liberal arts colleges have a near exclusive lock at giving them the tools to think, explore, and engage without being focused on a dollar, without being focused on a particular job; to think about how they are going to achieve their potential, how they are going to define the world’s fight, how they are going to build community, and how they are going to collaborate,” he told the symposium attendees.

When Randolph College’s Trustees met Bateman, they were impressed by his resume, his teaching experience, and his personality. “Even more compelling to the Board was his clear passion for the liberal arts,” said Becky Morrison Dunn ’70, chair of the board. “Before arriving on campus, he was already beginning to articulate his vision for how we could distinguish ourselves among our peers. … He was intent on having this College and its president have a voice in the debate about the value of a liberal education.”

The value of the liberal arts became the subject of many of Bateman’s speeches to the Randolph community, as well as the focus of his Inauguration. During the weekend of activities, symposium speakers addressed several major topics of liberal education: “Why Teach?” “Why Advise?” “Why Create?” and “Why Serve?”

Those speakers highlighted several areas where Bateman plans to lead the College, including more community service, internships, research, creative endeavors, and more advising. They also encouraged the Randolph community to stand with Bateman in defending the liberal arts and gave practical advice for that defense.

Kwang-Wu Kim, the president of Columbia College of Chicago, said liberal arts colleges must ignore statements about relevance and return on investment and focus instead on value. “The conversation that we must lead is value, and we must not shy away from practical omponents of value,” he said. In his Inauguration speech, Bateman argued that a liberal education is the best preparation for success, especially in a world where the economy is changing rapidly. “It is not just a lucky accident that the education that teaches us to think critically about the society in which we live and prepares us to work for its good also happens to be the best preparation we have for pursuing a lifetime of meaningful work,” he said.

However, he also encouraged the audience to remember that job preparation has never been and should not be the sole purpose of liberal education. Like the young women who bravely crossed through thick mud to become pioneers at R-MWC in 1893, today’s liberal
arts students are pursuing an education with a broader purpose.

“Through its long evolution to this moment in which I stand in front of you, the American liberal arts college has been shaped as an institution that not only offers the skills of freedom for those who already enjoy freedom, but also teaches that every person deserves freedom, and that that freedom is worth standing up for,” Bateman said.

“I commit myself, through good times and rough times, to maintain the traditions of great teaching, great learning, and the pursuit of honor. In pursuing that commitment, I look forward to the pursuit of a life worth living, an abundant life in every way.”