A Public Liberal Arts Education

My Early Brit Lit survey class


I’m not sure whether it’s common to give multiple presentations when one is on the verge of retirement, but such has been the case with me. I blogged Monday about my “last lecture,” and earlier this semester I spoke at our Phi Beta Kappa induction ceremony. I share the PBK talk below.

 A couple of explanations are in order. As a public liberal arts college and Maryland’s “public honors college,” St. Mary’s College of Maryland is an unusual institution. (Similar colleges include Evergreen in Washington and New College in Florida.) To explain to the inductees the unique vision they will carry with them into the world, I looked at the significance of combining “liberal arts” and “public.” How is St. Mary’s different from private liberal arts colleges such as Carleton, which I attended, and Sewanee, where my father taught?

My remarks, therefore, reach beyond college education to public education in general. The American Dream relies on even poor students having access to high quality education. With state appropriations declining, student college debt rising, income gaps growing, the Dream is under siege.

Phi Beta Kappa speech before the St. Mary’s College of Maryland Zeta Chapter, March 30, 2018

I explore today what it means to go out into the world with a degree from Maryland’s public honors college—its public liberal arts college–because I think that the education you have received here is special. Indeed, I will contend even more: your St. Mary’s College of Maryland education positions you well to fulfill the foundational ideals upon which our republic is based.

Looking at what you have received from your public liberal arts education requires looking at the public part and the liberal arts part. I turn to the liberal arts part first.

Those who study educational systems generally agree that the best undergraduate education in the world occurs at small liberal arts colleges. The liberal arts have long been championed by educators, going back to the trivium and quadrivium taught in medieval universities. The trivium consisted of grammar, logic and rhetoric and the quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music, and in those disciplines we see the roots of our Core Curriculum’s four fundamental skills and our arts, humanities, social sciences, science, foreign language, and mathematics requirements.

For Phi Beta Kappa membership, furthermore, you must have demonstrated breadth of study as well as earned good grades. Looking at your records, I see that almost all of you have majored and minored in multiple areas, indicating your interdisciplinary interests.

Studies of America’s community, state, and national leaders, meanwhile, have discovered that disproportionately high numbers of them graduated from small liberal arts colleges. Given that, in any given year, the students attending these colleges could all fit into a large university’s football stadium, these results are astounding. Although books have been written about this subject, I will single out a recent study that Google conducted of its work force, as reported in The Washington Post. According to Cathy Davidson, author of The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux, Google’s founders originally targeted top computer science majors from elite universities as their ideal employees. An internal study, however, caused them to see things differently:

In 2013, Google decided to test its hiring hypothesis by crunching every bit and byte of hiring, firing, and promotion data accumulated since the company’s incorporation in 1998. Project Oxygen shocked everyone by concluding that, among the eight most important qualities of Google’s top employees, STEM expertise comes in dead last. The seven top characteristics of success at Google are all soft skills: being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including others different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas.

You are well aware that liberal arts colleges specialize in these skills. Furthermore, your education makes you not only work-ready but world-ready. You have learned how to be a good person, a good partner, a good parent, a good community member, a good citizen and voter, and a good contributor to the global village. Your liberal arts courses and your campus activities will help you cope with adversity, prompt you to reach out to others, and generally guide you towards a more fulfilling life. After all, the faculty and staff have been listening to your passions and your concerns, teaching you how to solve problems, and coaching you to step into the strengths that we see in you.

Speaking as one who has mentored dozens of senior projects, I can say that every one of those projects has been a spiritual as well as an intellectual journey as you have grappled with the issues that you cared most about. The same has been true in my assigned essays: time after time I have seen you embrace the challenges presented by literature and find something meaningful in it. Your other professors report similar stories.

Now for the bad news. While small liberal arts colleges provide the best education, they are also the most expensive education. This should come as no surprise given how labor intensive it all is. I now turn my attention to the public subsidies that make the St. Mary’s vision possible.

When we became a four-year liberal arts college in 1970, our dream was that this superior education should be accessible to all Americans, not just those with economic advantages. The idea didn’t come from nowhere. According to the College’s website, in the very founding of the school as a high school women’s seminary in 1846, tuition and living costs were to be lower than they were at other such schools. After 1868, “the seminary frequently educated up to half of its students—representing every county of the state and each legislative district of Baltimore City—free of charge.”

It therefore makes sense that, when St. Mary’s became a four-year college in 1970, affordability would be key. St. Mary’s would be, as President Renwick Jackson said at the time, “a poor man’s Swarthmore.” Such a vision tapped into the ideal that all men and women are created equal—which is to say, all must have equal opportunity to achieve life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Before I look at the challenges faced by such a model, let’s look at what you have learned at a school with this vision. First of all, you have attended a school that has a far greater range of economic, racial and ethnic diversity than even the wealthiest private liberal arts college can afford. Around 20% of our student are first generation college students and a slightly lower percentage are historically disadvantaged minority students. By way of contrast, I can report that when I attended Carleton College, a well-regarded small liberal arts school in Minnesota, it had only two farm kids, one of whom I married.

Such diversity brings with it special challenges. For instance, it’s easier to get along if everyone comes from the same demographic. St. Mary’s, however, has stepped up to that challenge. The St. Mary’s Way, our ethos of “St. Mary’s nice,” and the classes, workshops, and visiting speakers devoted to understanding and negotiating diversity, are key to our identity.

The process hasn’t always been easy as there has been racism, sexism, and homophobia, as you all well know. What has been hard, however, has also led to growth. Imagine taking your newly acquired life skills into workplaces where people feel overwhelmed by sex, race, class or ethnic tensions. You have the liberal arts education to understand what is going on and the real-life experiences to rise to the occasion.

As a result—and I can tell you this based on 37 years of watching St. Mary’s students go out into the world—someone will one day thank heaven that they hired you. And not only employers. Partners and community organizations will thank St. Mary’s as well.

Here’s one area where I have witnessed a St. Mary’s education in action. When St. Mary’s students undertake community service, it’s not as though they are issuing forth from gated communities to do charity work before retreating back into a walled existence. You undertake service because you know from firsthand experience how these communities have nourished you, and you want to return the favor. That’s why St. Mary’s turns out many of the best teachers in the state, many of the most idealistic political figures in Annapolis, and many of the most dedicated government workers in Washington, D.C. Having had your education partially paid for by the taxpayers, you repay with interest.

I conclude with a warning and a request. The public sector, including public education, has been under sustained attack since Ronald Reagan said, “The most terrifying nine words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” (That’s actually eleven words since contractions count as two but set that aside.) Public education will be slighted as the income gap between the very wealthy and the rest of society grows. State legislators will want to cut taxes rather than support students.

This doesn’t automatically mean a St. Mary’s education is inferior. It may look that way, however, since large endowments make private college look more attractive. As Jean Giraudoux writes satirically in his play The Madwoman of Chaillot,

Ah, without money nobody likes or trusts you. But to have money is to be virtuous, beautiful, honest and witty. To have none is to be ugly and boring and stupid and useless.

Don’t be fooled. You have received here an invaluable education, even if sometimes everyone has had to work twice as hard to deliver it. If I had more time, I’d share many of the examples I have collected over the years of St. Mary’s students who have proved themselves just as good as those with private school educations, and you have a social conscience to boot. Never confuse the glitz of private wealth with quality while dismissing what is gained in the public sphere.

As you go out into the world, we are counting on you to advocate for the public liberal arts ideal. In doing so, you will honor what you yourselves have achieved while, at the same time, making this country a better place.

This entry was posted in Giraudoux (Jean) and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

  • Sign up for weekly newsletter

    Your email will not be shared or sold.
    * = required field

    powered by MailChimp!
  • Twitter Authentication data is incomplete