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PBK Cleveland 2014 Annual Scholarship Awards Keynote Address

Communicating Excellence: Making the Case for Liberal Education Today

Marvin Krislov
President, Oberlin College

Oberlin College's Phi Beta Kappa chapter, Zeta of Ohio, was founded in 1907

I’m honored to be part of the Cleveland Association of Phi Beta Kappa’s annual scholarship awards.

Becoming a member of Phi Beta Kappa affirmed my love of learning, my willingness to work hard to achieve my goals, and my desire to be a positive contributor to my community and our society.

Those are the same values which brought you high school seniors here today. Congratulations on your many successes. And I want to give a special shout-out to Jane Reilly McInerney who is here representing Oberlin High School.

Now you are all preparing to go to college. That is one of the great rites of passage in a person’s life. I remember that feeling of striking out on my own my freshman year, of beginning a great personal and intellectual journey.

Some of you may already have a destination in mind—becoming a teacher, an investment banker, a doctor, a pastor, a lawyer, a scientist, an entrepreneur, an artist or a musician. How many of you have an idea of what you want to do? Raise your hand.

That’s great. To those students who don’t know yet what you want to do in life, and your parents, that’s fine, too. College is where you will figure that out.

I hope you’re excited about what lies ahead. College is one of the times in life when you can explore your interests and intellectual passions, and perhaps discover new ones that may become your life’s work.

When I matriculated at Yale University one thing I wasn’t thinking about was what my first job would be when I graduated. I was focused on acquiring a depth and breadth of knowledge, and as many skills as I could. I wanted a great liberal education.

Before I go on, allow me to dispel some common misconceptions about liberal arts education. Liberal, in this context, is not about politics or party affiliation. And arts doesn’t mean you’ll ever take a college art class. Simply put, liberal arts education is a broad-based, in-depth education which prepares you to meet life’s challenges, and to be leaders in your chosen fields.

The American Association of Colleges and Universities defines liberal education as an approach to learning that empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change. It provides students with broad knowledge of the wider world--science, culture, and society—as well as in-depth study in a specific area of interest. A liberal education helps students develop a sense of social responsibility, as well as strong and transferable intellectual and practical skills such as communication, analytical and problem-solving skills, and a demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings.

I received all of that and more at Yale. My liberal education helped me become a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. It helped me excel in law school. It helped when I started my first job—working on a quixotic political campaign in the Deep South. Liberal education still has a positive effect on my life and work every day, as it does for millions of people.

So why is the relevance, value and cost of liberal education such a hotly debated topic in America these days? Critics of liberal education—including some experts and some government officials—argue that its time is past. It costs too much, it is inherently impractical, and does not prepare students to get a job immediately after graduation. They see little benefit in studying the arts, the humanities or the social sciences. Instead, they advocate skill training targeted at specific jobs.

Given my education and my position as president of one of the world’s great liberal arts colleges, I won’t pretend to be neutral in this debate. I believe liberal education is the best preparation a young person can have for the job market, and for a rewarding and meaningful life.

Besides my personal experience, numerous studies support this position. It is a fact that college graduates will earn more over their lifetimes and experience far less unemployment than their peers with a high school degree. This has been true for many, many years.

I think part of the reason liberal education is under fire is—to borrow a phrase from the movie “Cool Hand Luke”—a failure to communicate. The colleges and universities which embrace liberal education suffer from a certain degree of self-satisfaction. We know our graduates do well in their lives and careers. We celebrate that within our own communities. But as a group we don’t do a good job of communicating that success to the broader public. We need to better explain what liberal education is. We need to explain what we do and why it is so important for our country and the world. Phi Beta Kappa’s initiatives promoting liberal education are step in that direction.

What do institutions of liberal education do? The mission of most liberal arts schools is to educate the whole person rather than training graduates to succeed at specific jobs which employers may be seeking to fill at a certain point in time. Robert Maynard Hutchins—the great American educator who studied at Oberlin and Yale, and served for decades as president of the University of Chicago—wrote in a famous essay on education titled “The Great Conversation”, that the aim of liberal education is human excellence both private and public—meaning excellence as a person and as a citizen of a democracy.

Liberal education does that by teaching students to become lifelong learners who are their own best teachers. It teaches them to take intellectual risks and to think laterally—to understand how the humanities, the arts and the sciences inform, enrich and affect each other. By connecting diverse ideas and themes across the academic disciplines, liberal arts students learn to better reason and analyze. They are better able to express their creativity and their ideas. They are capable of thinking and acting globally and locally.

Liberal education encourages students to do interdisciplinary work, and to understand the connections between politics, economics, language, religion, history, and culture. Most colleges also offer you opportunities to study abroad or off campus. I benefited from that, and I encourage you to seize such opportunities.

The attributes liberal education instills are worth attaining just to have a more fulfilling life. They are also critically important for our graduates’ future success in this globalized, technologically-driven economy.

Let me give you an example of how liberal education works. From my college—and I’m very proud of my college as you can tell—I could talk about Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the mayor of Baltimore, or Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control, or Congresswoman Yvette Clark from New York or hundreds of other prominent alumni.

But how many of you know who Ed Helms is?

Actor, comedian, producer, writer, musician—The Daily Show, The Office, The Hangover movies. Ed graduated from Oberlin in 1996. As an undergrad, he took a range of courses—philosophy, English, history, religion. He designed his own, independent major called Film Theory and Technology. This involved writing research papers, and writing, shooting, directing, and acting in short films. He spent an undergrad semester at NYU studying film theory. At Oberlin, he also played banjo in a bluegrass band, sang in an a cappella group, performed improv, and was on the swim team.

In short, Ed’s course of study was what critics of liberal education would term impractical and arty. Yet, all those various elements coalesced and contributed to Ed’s success. With the exception of competitive swimming, they are all still a significant part of his life.

That’s the magic of liberal education and—I might add—Phi Beta Kappa: learning and love of learning shape your life.

Critics of liberal education believe there should be a much narrower college curriculum targeted on clearly defined opportunities for a specific job right after college. But transforming higher education into training for specific, entry-level jobs is risky because it relies on predicting future demand in the job market. We all know how fast the global economy and technological change move. The job you began preparing for as a first-year may not exist when you graduate. There’s also basic supply and demand. If everyone majors in computer engineering the supply of graduates will eventually outstrip the industry’s demand for engineers, putting downward pressure on wages.

College should do more than get you one job. It should prepare you to succeed in multiple careers. Studies show that current college graduates will likely change careers 15 times in their lives. They are likely to make 11 career changes before turning 40. If all you learned in college was how to do one thing well, navigating those changes is going to be tough.

Thomas Friedman, editorial columnist of the New York Times, wrote two columns recently headlined, “How to Get a Job at Google.” He based both on conversations with Laszlo Bock, who is in charge of all hiring at Google. While I don’t agree with everything Mr. Bock said, he provided some useful insights.

Friedman asked Mr. Bock if the liberal arts are still important. Bock’s response was that they are “phenomenally important,” especially when combined with other disciplines. He gave an example. “Ten years ago behavioral economics was rarely referenced. But (then) you apply social science to economics and suddenly there’s this whole new field.”

Lazlo Bock went on to say, “You need some people who are holistic thinkers and have liberal arts backgrounds and some who are deep functional experts. Building that balance is hard, but that’s where you end up building great societies, great organizations.”

That’s the perspective of the man in charge of hiring at Google.

For those of us working in liberal education that isn’t some great revelation. We see these interactions between disciplines happening every day on our campuses. We publicize them to our students, faculty, alumni, parents and staff. We also try to get the news media interested. But academic news can be a tough sell.

For example, the Association of American Colleges and Universities released in January an interesting study about the career prospects of liberal arts grads. It showed that liberal arts majors may lag behind others when they start their postgraduate career path. But they close much of the salary and unemployment gap over time. By their mid-50s, liberal arts majors with an advanced or undergraduate degree are—on average—making more money than those who studied in professional and pre-professional fields, and are employed at similar rates. So liberal arts grads do just fine in the job market.

The report concluded that the scenario of liberal arts education as the road to poverty is a myth. Yet the study received little media attention.

Another myth is that liberal arts colleges ignore what’s going on in the job market. Not true. We’re acutely aware of it. That’s why Oberlin and so many other schools have strengthened their career services offices in recent years. We know we have to help students put the knowledge and critical thinking skills they acquire to good use. We also encourage students from their first days on campus—which will be here before you seniors know it--to pursue internships and other career opportunities.

As for the expense, providing a top-quality liberal education in a residential setting is indeed costly. But look at what you get for the money. We not only educate our students, we house and feed them, and provide for their health and well-being. We also face growing demands from students and their families for support services. Providing those services adds expense.

Is the expense worth it? I believe it is. Possessing broad, deep knowledge and skills, and the ability to think flexibly and creatively is more important than ever before.

Successful careers and financial gain are just part of the value of a liberal arts education. Its true worth is measured not in dollars but in meaningful lives well-lived. Through the years, the breadth, depth, flexibility, and rigor of American liberal arts education has enriched countless lives in myriad ways. It has also produced so many leaders in virtually every field of human endeavor.

Given the global leadership of American graduate education and the global economy’s demands for flexible, adaptable employees, undergraduate liberal education is more than relevant. It remains one of our country’s great assets.

Andrew Bongiorno, the late, great Dante scholar and professor of English at Oberlin, once said that the real value of a liberal arts education cannot be judged on graduation day because it unfolds and blossoms over an entire lifetime.

Seniors, I hope your college education does just that. Thank you, and I wish you all wonderful college careers.



Contact your Members of Congress to Support the Arts and Sciences!

Federal policies often shape state higher education discussions. Click the link below for several sample emails that you can copy and paste to send to your Members of Congress, along with tips to boost your message's impact.



Missing from History: Black Suffragists and the Right to Vote

The Cleveland Association of ΦBK Endowed Forum

Join us as Paula J. Giddings, the Elizabeth A. Woodson 1922 Professor Emerita of Africana Studies at Smith College, discusses the 19th Amendment: the political tradition of African American women, their struggle to be enfranchised, and how their activism led to the influence that Black women have on today’s electorate.

  • DATE: April 16, 2021
  • PLACE: City Club of Cleveland Virtual Forum
  • TIME: Livestream beginning at 12:30 p.m.


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