A day with Dan Weiss and “Remaking College”

Guest Post by Phil Walsh, Washington College

choppA recent visitor to Washington College came away impressed with the vibrancy and potential of our campus. He appreciated the size and quality of our student body (about 1450 undergraduate students, drawn from all over the nation and world); he loved our bucolic location (in Chestertown, MD, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore); and he admired our thriving chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, America’s oldest and most prestigious honor society. That visitor, Daniel Weiss, president of Haverford College and coeditor of Remaking College: Innovation and the Liberal Arts, also appreciated our invitation to discuss the important issues in his book with WC’s students, faculty, staff, administrators, and board members.  (See the New York Times article about Daniel Weiss’s recent appointment as president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

For the past few years our chapter of PBK, the Theta of Maryland, has taken a leadership role on campus and organized a speaker series on the subject of liberal education. In the spring of 2013, we welcomed Andrew Delbanco, author of College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be; in the spring of 2014, our guest was Daniel DeNicola, author of Learning to Flourish: A Philosophical Exploration of Liberal Education; and this past November, we invited President Weiss. We initiated this series partially in response to national debates about the value of liberal education in the twenty-first century, but we believed (and continue to believe) that there is enormous value in talking about the liberal arts in our local community. We are, after all, the practitioners of this ancient, noble, but often misunderstood course of study, and we should strive to know as much as we can about its history, ideals, and futures.

The topics discussed in Remaking College are timely and important (for a review, see my colleague Sean Meehan’s post in The Key Reporter), and for our campus it takes on additional relevance in a year when Washington College is searching for a new President. From the beginning we envisioned a high impact event and planned Daniel Weiss’ visit during a meeting of WC’s Board of Visitors and Governors. Our chapter initially distributed copies of Remaking College to all the members of the Board, to the College’s senior staff, and to new faculty, but interest was so great that we placed a second order and offered copies to all faculty and staff. To lend a national perspective, we invited John Churchill, chief executive of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, to attend the lecture and to lead a post-dinner conversation in response to President Weiss’ remarks.

The evening, by all accounts, was a remarkable success. As a sitting college president at an institution not unlike ours, Daniel Weiss spoke with passion, clarity, and insight. He described the various challenges that all small liberal arts colleges face (e.g., shrinking demographics and rising costs), and, drawing on lessons from the book, he offered a compelling argument for why liberal arts colleges are as vital as ever. After reading Remaking College and hearing President Weiss speak, I remain confident about the mission of Washington College (and of great schools like ours). They are places where students come to slow down and to be unhurried in the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. They are places where students learn how to love to learn from faculty, staff, and, perhaps most powerfully, their own peers. They are places where students are challenged to embrace the ideals of liberal education: freedom of inquiry; breadth and depth of study; creative endeavor across the disciplines; and an understanding that in the human experience, from classical Athens to twenty-first century Shanghai, change alone is unchanging. Remaking College is a valuable book that asks liberal arts colleges not only to reflect on current best practices but also to return to one of the oldest and most basic human questions: “What is the best way to educate our youth?”

Phil Walsh is a visiting assistant professor of English at Washington College, where he teaches a wide range of literature courses, as well as ancient Greek and Latin. Since the fall of 2013, he has served as president of the Theta of Maryland, Washington College’s chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.