From the President

The Power of the Liberal Arts in Residence

By James Wagner, President, Emory University

Portrait of President James W. Wagner on the campus of Emory University

A syndicated columnist recently tried to defend the residential college experience in the context of the rise of MOOCs by noting the value of personal networks built through a campus experience. His point was that whom students get to know in college, through face-to-face interaction and friend making, is as important as what they get to know, and that the residential campus fosters this interaction superbly.

I would not disagree with this view, but I would add an important codicil. Although what you know will always be important, and whom you know can certainly help you along, the most critical what and who of learning are inherent in the students themselves. “Who am I, and what am I going to do with my life?”

The passage of three or four years among a community of scholars and fellow questers has proven, for a millennium, to be an especially powerful means for helping young people answer these questions. The power of the residential liberal arts education lies in its capacity for developing authenticity, encouraging an entrepreneurial spirit, instilling insight, valuing openness to others, and awakening in students a call to be useful.

Let me share some examples. Last year a young woman named Stephanie graduated from Emory College with honors in sociology and history, then moved to the nation’s capital to work as a paid staff member with AmeriCorps while working on a master’s degree. So far her story is fairly typical. Unusual, though, was her path. As a freshman she had done some tutoring and community service through Volunteer Emory. With her interest piqued, she expanded her commitment by applying for a Community Building and Social Change Fellowship in our Center for Community Partnerships. The fellowship gave her a year of experience blending academic study with community work in some of Atlanta’s needier schools. In turn, this experience shaped her application for a Truman Scholarship, which provided a graduate scholarship and the first step on a career of service through teaching.

Stephanie’s story is one of progressively deepening engagement with both a subject and its real-world implications. She found an outlet for passionate curiosity and service. She experienced what I think of as “accelerating authenticity”—a quickening of the pace toward finding her passion, vocation, and path. Perhaps she could have done this online. But I doubt it.

At the June trustees’ meeting three other students told their stories as a way of underscoring the value of the residential liberal arts education. One of them, Stephen, recalled that he had taken a risk in his freshman year by pitching a proposal to the dean of campus life—and he suddenly found himself in a job as director of the dean’s new program of communications through social media. Stephen found Emory enabling his entrepreneurial aspirations, which he will continue to pursue through majors in music and business.

Another student, Bukie, had just graduated from Goizueta Business School and landed a job with a national consulting firm. Because Emory requires BBA students to complete two years of Emory College before enrolling in business, Bukie went into job interviews with certain advantages. In fact, the interviewer who offered her the job told her that certain skills set her apart. “Having the right answer,” Bukie said, “is not enough if you can’t communicate it. Reaching the right conclusion is not enough, if you can’t show how you arrived at it.” Her liberal arts background had provided those skills. And her life on campus as a resident adviser and student-programming leader had prepared her to think on her feet and deal with people effectively. For Bukie, Emory had instilled insight.

Laura, a native of Colombia who moved to the United States as a teenager, told the trustees that she had come to Emory expecting to major in Arabic and spent a term studying in Morocco. Returning to Emory, she began to study Spanish as a way of understanding her homeland better, and she quickly found connections between the Moroccan influence on Spain and some Moorish roots in her own Latin American culture. Her openness to otherness was facilitated by her residential education.

Apart from the first five years of life, the ages of eighteen to twenty-four constitute the greatest period of growth and development of personhood in the modern human lifespan—psychologically, intellectually, and socially. Not every young person negotiates this passage as brilliantly as Stephanie, Bukie, Stephen, and Laura. But the experience of the residential liberal arts research university raises the odds of successful transformation. That is the value of this kind of educational institution for individuals and society. It underpins the usefulness of individuals. For what could be more useful to society than such young people, with such virtues?

Email the editor