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Change the American Way

Tom Plate / 31 August 2008

It is for the rest of the world to judge whether educating leaders is something America does well. But it is certainly something America sets out consciously to do -- not with malice of forethought (dear conspiracy theorists) but with every good intention.

The American theory of the broad liberal arts education emphasizes the civic education of future leaders. It is a matter very relevant to the U. S  President election.

The properly ambitious American educator imagines that her or his students walk onto campus as mere mortals and walk off as potential immortals. They are admitted to colleges or universities with a rarified sense of themselves that defies adult description or general belief --- not to mention objective reality --- but graduate with the deeply educated humility of a modern-day Socrates. Only educated humility, it is believed, can produce the flowering of true wisdom.

American education doesn’t always work out this way, of course. Ideals are often detoured by the roadblocks of every-day existence. Bummer budgets can bring everyone down to earth faster than a plunging space capsule. Sometimes the ideal is indeed the enemy of the good - and of the modest but helpful improvement. But our best and most determined educators always soldier on, like undermanned Confederate generals, unafraid to charge up the hill against terrible odds.

A good iconic exemplar of the American search for the leadership ideal in education is a liberal arts institution in Los Angeles known as Occidental College. We choose it to make our larger point about educating future leaders because it regularly shows up in the top-small college ratings lists and because among its most prominent former students is Barack Obama, currently charging up the steep hill of American politics to capture the White House and become America’s leader and presumptive leader of the Western world, and because like almost all these small colleges, it sports a reflective and articulate president.

We caught up with Occidental College President Robert A. Skotheim the day after the president’s traditional ”Convocation Address” that kicks off the school’s academic year. What a liberal-arts college should be, said the former director of the prestigious Huntington Museum, is a cauldron of challenge and change. ”This is what going to college has got to be all about, if it is successful,” he said. ”If you are not changed by it, you are being-short changed. But what you cannot know, probably, is how you will be changed.”

Take the Obama example. For him, the Oxy (as it is known locally) experience was clearly transformative. For the first year, 1979, he preferred to be called by his nickname Barry.

Just two years later, Barry was history. In the cauldron of change marked by intense courses in literature, arts, philosophy and social science, the student found himself as Barack, with all its implications, not as Barry, for all the normality. He transferred to finish his undergraduate degree at Columbia University in New York, and then to Harvard for legal education. It wasn’t long after, that America found the one and only Barack Obama.

”A true liberal-arts college education was and should be a secular conversion experience,” said Skotheim. ”And that transformation experience takes place on campus, where you live as a student. That’s where the change happens.” It’s harder for the transformation to take place at commuter schools, where students live off campus; or at very large institutions, where undergraduate education can be de-prioritized and undergrads viewed as little more than a student ID number and an obligation to educate.

My friends in Asia and elsewhere in the world often offer high praise for the American system of higher education - but they mainly refer to our high-quality technical education of engineering, mathematics, physics, chemistry or medicine. They are mesmerised by the so-called ”hard sciences,” and not by the ”soft” social sciences and humanities that offer comparatively little ability of quantification. If you can’t measure it or can’t see it, then what is it?

The Occidental President’s response would be echoed by excellent small-college presidents from nearby Pomona College to far-off Amherst, Williams and Wellesley (Hillary Clinton, class of 1969). ”It’s more than vocational training, it has to be,” said Skotheim. Technical education, as essential as it is, drives the student towards employment. It is intended to produce workers.

A liberal arts education drives her or him toward a degree of intellectual and emotional self-confidence so that ”you think that it’s okay to want to change society - or even to change yourself.” It is aimed at producing leaders of change.

At their best, the Occidentals of America produce self-reflective thinkers --- people who think for themselves and who can engineer new thoughts for others to follow. Real change is never easy, but it is impossible --- or can backfire badly - unless a democracy has sufficiently educated people well enough to think about change carefully.

If America does in fact have that capability, it is in no smaller measure due to the steady commitment to personal transformation of the small liberal arts colleges like Oberlin, Haverford, Swarthmore and many others unmentioned, as well as mentioned, that keep the faith. For change you can believe in, you need to believe in change.

Sometimes small schools can serve as big-change enablers, especially in the US.

Prof. Tom Plate is a veteran American journalist and founder of the Asia Pacific Media Network

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