Davis & Elkins College is a private, liberal arts, church-affiliated, residential college. Each of these descriptors is of high importance to me. Of all these terms, it is liberal arts that garners the most reflection. Recently, I read a book that challenged the definition and the impact of liberal arts institutions such as D&E.
Several years ago, while attending a conference, I had the privilege of hearing the President Emeritus of Davidson University, Dr. John Kuykendall, deliver the keynote address.  I bought his book Lighting the Mind for Action and must admit it just recently came off my shelf. With his lifetime of experience in higher education, the author provided much food for thought concerning a liberal arts education.
In May of 1781, future president John Adams wrote the following to his son, and future president, John Quincy Adams: “You will ever remember that all the end of study is to make you a good man and a good citizen.” The centrality of this ethical and civic directive was understood to be the very heart of a liberal arts education in Adams’ time. In our day, Kuykendall argues, this emphasis is in danger of being lost.
The original concept of the liberal arts originates in ancient Athens as civic arts. The liberal arts referred not so much to the specific subject matter but rather “…to three ‘discipline free’ uses to which language could refer–to argue, to persuade, or to comprehend the elements of persuasive argument.” Another way to phrase this would be logic, rhetoric, and grammar. In its traditional sense, students graduated from liberal arts institutions and were sent into their communities to benefit not just themselves, but the whole of society. Liberal arts graduates were–and I would argue still are–a cornerstone of a healthy democracy.
Dr. Kuykendall described character development as a hallmark of a true liberal arts education. “We’ve witnessed a coach’s advice or example and a chaplain’s counsel alter the direction of a student’s life; we’ve watched as students modeled themselves after faculty mentors; and we’ve seen an honor system become so securely lodged in students’ souls as to last far beyond their college years.” Alarmingly, there are colleges today, even those affiliated with Christian denominations, that do not see character development as central to their mission.
At the heart of Davis & Elkins College’s mission and identity is our commitment to the liberal arts. Our ongoing reflection, dialogue, and discernment will enable us to continually define the impact of this intentional direction upon the educational product we deliver and its long-lasting effect upon our graduates.
In a society increasingly polarized by our politics and divided by ethical and moral quandaries, revisiting the traditional liberal arts might produce a salve for the open wounds our society is suffering. America’s small liberal arts colleges provide great promise for developing civic leaders of character, ethics, and integrity…a new generation to lead us toward a brighter and a more civil future.
“More than ever today,” according to Lighting the Mind for Action,
“…America needs men and women who, by force of word and dint of character, offset the popular media, raise the level of public debate, and repair the civic fabric of splintered communities.”
The journey continues….
Chris A. Wood
Davis & Elkins College