Lessons from Another Land

A View from the Hill - Summer 2012

Effat was created to offer a liberal arts education to women, and my responsibility, as the senior president among the 13 colleges that make up the GLCA, was to review with Effat’s administrative leadership and faculty a new core curriculum that can encourage the kind of critical thinking, analysis, ethical reasoning, and communications skills that are hallmarks of a liberal education.

Jeddah is Saudi Arabia’s major port city on the Red Sea and the country’s traditional trade and culture portal to the world. It’s a city of some three million, growing so rapidly that it scarcely seems possible to save its historic patrimony of mud-walled caravan warehouses, centuries-old mosques, and castellated buildings from the European colonial era with intricate wooden shutters to let in the sea breeze. Gleaming skyscrapers soar just above crumbling sentinels of the past. Out toward the international airport, new neighborhoods of suburban villas provide evidence of the modern nation’s oil wealth. But this is also a place that imports thousands of workers from the Philippines and the Indian subcontinent on insecure annual visas to perform most of the construction and service jobs—and they don’t own suburban villas. Jeddah is the gateway to Mecca by air and sea alike, and the importance of visiting the religious sites is palpable among the pilgrims, whose clothing for the special journey reveals  their far-flung homelands.

I went there on an educational mission. I was a consultant with responsibility to share with a ten-year-old college what a 181-year-old college has learned about liberal education, but I was also the recipient of new knowledge——not just about education in Saudi Arabia but about what we are trying to accomplish at Denison. I learned from Saudi educators that there is a growing sense across the nation that vocational/professional education is leaving young people short of the very skills of resourcefulness, flexibility, communication, and, frankly, the ability to learn anew throughout life, that our dynamic world requires. So many educators are turning to the liberal arts, where the major is more a laboratory for honing learning skills. In conversing with Effat faculty, some educated internationally in liberal arts institutions and others decidedly not, I was repeatedly forced to consider what the most important elements of a liberal education really are. I was challenged to think about why we do what we do at Denison.

One of the things I re-learned about education at Denison is that environmental factors play a large role in achieving our goals. Close, sustained relationships between students and faculty are essential to us. The faculty at Effat is struggling with this because the short-term visas available to professors from abroad make long-term tenures difficult. The university administration at Effat calculated correctly, I think, that liberal education is not just about course content but also about course delivery, and that many faculty may need to be weaned from traditional lectures to the kind of participatory, classroom give-and-take that is conventional to us in Granville. Moreover because the Effat campus, so far, has only a few residence halls, students find it difficult to utilize the laboratories or library after class hours, to establish face-to-face project teams and study groups, or to participate in the co-curricular organizations or activities that provide learning opportunities that we take for granted on a fully residential campus.

I learned that a liberal arts core curriculum can, in fact, be tailored in ways appropriate to different cultures and educational traditions. I learned that in the absence of a rich co-curricular life outside the classroom, faculty can creatively step into the breach to help foster students’ social development through in-class activity. And I learned, once again, how important it is for our Denison students to become better acquainted with other peoples and other cultures, both through what we offer in the classroom and what they may experience through well-crafted international study experiences. It’s a big world out there.

There is a growing number of universities around the world that are seeking to increase the liberal arts content of undergraduate education in Africa, Asia, and both Eastern and Western Europe. In many countries, there’s recognition that a liberal education, rather than a narrowly professional one, is what will pave the way to social and economic progress for individuals and societies. The GLCA, with assistance from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Christian A. Johnson Endeavor Foundation, has partnered with a number of colleges and universities, including Effat, the American University of Beirut, Hong Kong’s Lingnan University, and the Forman Christian College of Pakistan (once led by Peter Armacost ’57). In June, I joined presidents and provosts/academic deans from all these institutions in Athens, Greece, where we explored the key elements and future prospects of liberal education around the world. Once again, we had the opportunity to learn much—about all of our institutions.

Published June 2012