Liberal arts persevere in age of specialization

Colleges: Four small private schools in Maryland adapt to pressure in the education market.

Education

April 11, 1999|By MICHAEL HILL | MICHAEL HILL,SUN STAFF

The private liberal arts college remains a halcyon image of higher education in many minds - caring professors on cloistered campuses teaching small classes the eternal truths of literature and science, molding young minds into those of responsible, thoughtful citizens.

But how is King Lear or Newton going to help you find a job in the high-tech, information-driven, Web-based 21st century?

Goucher, Washington, Western Maryland and Hood are four Maryland nonsectarian, traditional liberal arts colleges. In an increasingly bottom line-oriented society, they are battered by pressures from various points on the academic and economic compasses.

From one direction, Ivy League schools and their ilk - Johns Hopkins, the University of Chicago, Stanford - have price tags that are only slightly higher but offer a prestigious stamp of approval that many think is worth that kind of money. Few small colleges and none in Maryland - can compete in that arena.

"It is clearly a challenge," says John S. Toll, president of Washington College in Chestertown and former chancellor of the University of Maryland.

Even the value of the time-tested liberal arts education is questioned by prospective students who are increasingly vocationally oriented, seeking the kind of applied, practical and technical programs that lead directly to employment.

"Many of our applicants, and more often their parents, say to me, 'What can I do with this degree?" says Robert Welch, academic dean of Goucher College in Towson. "I tell them, 'Just about anything you want to.'"

Officials at the liberal arts schools make a fundamental case for their kind of education - what employers want are people who can write and speak well and think critically, and that is what a liberal arts education provides.

They also contend that what students need are not specific skills, but the ability to learn new ones. Toll points to a projection that today's students will change not just jobs but careers several times in their lifetimes.

"I happen to believe that a liberal arts education is the best possible preparation for today's society," says Shirley D. Peterson, who has been president of Hood College in Frederick for the past four years. "The pace of change is so great that any education that trains a student for one job is doing that student a disservice."

Martha O'Connell, director of admissions at Western Maryland College in Westminster, says prospective students will come to her and say they want to major in computer science.

"I ask them why, and they say they like computers," she says. "They dont know what computer science is. We have a minor in it. That's what they need. They can go to graduate school if they find they are really interested.

"You don't need to major in marine biology as an undergraduate. Get a good basic science education, major in biology. Specialize later in graduate school," she says.

Hood senior Erin Goodwillie, about to graduate with a joint major in art and French, agrees. "It's foolish to think that 17-year-olds know what they want to do the rest of their life," she says. "I started out as a management major, but I hated it. I found what I liked in my arts courses."

The message seems to be getting through.

"You don't hear as much about the irrelevance of studying Aristotle as you did 20 years ago," says Nicholas H. Farnham of the Educational Leadership Program, a New York-based group that works with liberal arts colleges.

"People didn't understand the concept of learning critical thinking then," he says. "These schools remain the backbone of the American higher education System."

Certainly these schools have modified their programs to appeal to the current crop of students.

Goucher attracts students with departments like dance - its department is one of the top-ranked among colleges - but it offers dance and other arts majors concentrations in administration, preparing students for a career in the business side of the fine arts, not just performing.

"I wanted to come to a school that had top academics as well as an excellent dance program," says Goucher sophomore Jennifer Ellsworth, who is majoring in dance and international studies.

Goucher also has an internship program that dates back 40 years and requires all students to have off-campus experience.

Western Maryland also emphasizes its internships, while Washington College is forging a wide variety of relationships with schools overseas as well as getting its students government internships in Annapolis and Washington.

Hood points to its networking with scientific institutions at nearby Fort Detrick as well as with various communities in Washington.

"The people at the National Gallery tell me there have been more interns there from Hood than from Harvard or Yale," says Ann Derbes, Hood's history of art professor.

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