Professor emeritus reflects on values of a liberal arts education

By Barry Keenan

Professor Emeritus

Knowing that liberal arts colleges are not a tradition in China, I was delighted to discuss a secret or two of liberal arts colleges when asked to talk with Denison’s newly arriving students from the People’s Republic of China. Denison admitted a very select small group; and they were full of curiosity and anxiety. I taught East Asian history for 38 years at Denison. Here is what I thought would be useful for the new arrivals to know; and it might interest other first-year students as well.

Quite apart from all the public universities, there are two kinds of private liberal arts colleges in the U.S.: large and small. My personal choice at age eighteen — back when admission was much less competitive than today — can explain the real difference. I chose to attend Yale University (5,000 students), over Swarthmore College (1,500 students). In retrospect I think this decision was not well advised. My older brother was already a sophomore at Swarthmore when I chose not to attend Swarthmore. As we have compared notes in the years that followed, I am quite convinced my brother got a better undergraduate education at Swarthmore than I got at Yale. The difference can be seen in the fact that, except for one Yale “French-table” professor (who happened to also forget to put my name in competition for a Woodrow Wilson scholarship my senior year as he had promised), I cannot remember another professor I had at Yale who ever called me by my first name. Most classes were just too large, and graduate students led discussion sections in survey courses.

The small liberal arts environment at Denison trains you to become an independent thinker. Let me explain how I think that happens. Each time a professor like me returns your work, my feedback lets you know what your good points are, and what was weak in your argument. For example, if you were to come to my office hours with a “C” paper that I have returned, I feel it is my job to verbally reinforce what was done well, and also to make clear what a perfect paper would have done differently. When that happens several times in one course, you learn which of your ideas are perceptive, and why. Over four years of such feedback in the many courses your take, you will come to know on your own how to think well, and write well. You have learned to be an independent thinker.

Four years of broad subject matter has another great advantage for your future. You will know what kinds of subject matter you find appealing. Developing your intellectual passions through new courses that were not even available in your high school, and then selecting a major, will be of lifelong value. By senior year you will have combined your personal interests with your growing powers as a confident independent thinker, and be ready to consider different career choices. The cutting edge that will make you employable will require some specialized post-Denison training in the kind of work you want to develop as a profession. Graduate schools or on-the-job training opportunities want applicants who can think by themselves. Liberal arts graduates have that ability. You will also offer critical thinking, effective writing and someone who is conscious of their place in the cosmos.

Chinese students who have dared to cross 10,000 miles to submit themselves to the kind of humility needed in higher learning also live with a form of homesickness the rest of us can hardly understand. Family is the core of all personal values, including identity, in East Asia. I told these new arrivals at Denison to be willing to read the work of roommates and friends before those friends turn in their papers–for anyone who is willing can help us see our weaknesses.