Liberal Arts Colleges and “Great Books” Programs

Consider a Small Liberal Arts College*

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If you live in New England, New York, Pennsylvania or the Midwest this kind of college is everywhere.  You might not think it’s necessary to mention this option at all.  But nationwide only about 2% of college students attend these and there are whole states that don’t have one.  Most of our own students enroll at one of the campuses of the University of California system, the California State University system or one of the 113 schools in the California Community College system.  Even though there are a few small liberal arts colleges in California and some of our students attend them, both here and in other states, there is a lot of confusion about them in our community.  Some students and parents, for example, believe that you are restricted to the humanities at such places and you can’t study science or math because they don’t offer it.  In fact, small liberal arts colleges are excellent places to study biology, chemistry, physics, geology and math and a disproportionate number of American Ph.D.’s in science got their start at these colleges.

Small liberal arts colleges are almost always private, enroll 1000 – 3000 students, sometimes a little less or a little more, and are primarily for undergraduates.  Nearly all have their origin in some church, but today most of these have little or no religious affiliation and welcome everybody.  If they have any graduate programs at all (which most don’t) these are small and specialized and don’t detract from the focus on students studying for the bachelor’s degree.  “Liberal arts” refers to traditional academic subjects in the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences but implies that few students or none are majoring in job-related subjects like engineering, journalism, business, or nursing.  Most liberal arts colleges don’t offer programs in these areas.  They called “liberal arts” colleges because in ancient Greece the seven “liberal arts” grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music were considered the appropriate study of an elite “free” man who didn’t have to do manual labor.  Today, only St. John’s College (in Annapolis, Maryland and Santa Fe, New Mexico) adheres to this model.  Most students at liberal arts colleges major in things like English, economics, history, psychology, art, biology, chemistry or math.

Although it is possible to get a great education anywhere, small liberal arts colleges offer some big advantages over large universities, especially during the first two or three years of college.  Your introductory classes at a typical state university will be very large, and often taught by overworked and distracted instructors who may not be real professors.  In most cases they simply will not have time to get to know you individually or to help you develop your skills.  So the standards and expectations they set for you may be pretty low.  Once you choose a major and start taking advanced courses the classes will get smaller and you will get more attention from the professors.  If your purpose in college is to slide by with a minimum of work, this could sound like good news, but having a stimulating and engaging college experience is actually important to your future.  It is four years of your life and hundreds of thousands of dollars.  A college should challenge you, inspire you, and help you find your passion.  If it doesn’t, it’s a huge waste of time, money and opportunity.

Also, big universities have graduate students. These are older students who have already graduated from college and are studying for a Master’s or Ph.D. degree.  Graduate students have priority over you for all the special opportunities you find at a university: doing scientific research in a professor’s lab, directing a play, having a gallery show your art, or traveling to a conference.  Whenever graduate students need money (which is usually) they get to teach you in place of the professors, whether they are good at teaching or not.  Class sizes at small liberal arts colleges are smaller, and classes are nearly always taught by full-time, permanent professors who think helping you is their primary job.  This means a more engaging and stimulating experience for you.  There are no graduate students to compete with, so you get to do the things graduate students would normally do.

Private colleges are expensive.  Many charge $60,000 per year or more for tuition, room and board.  However, these colleges can be extremely generous with financial aid and scholarships and less than half of the students who attend them pay full fare.  Many middle class students get steep discounts, and many others attend almost free, or at least for less than the local state university would charge them.  It all depends on your family’s finances and on any scholarships the college offers.  So don’t assume you can’t afford a private college. Apply for financial aid when you apply for admission and see what happens.  Some of these colleges are very competitive to get into, and some are very easy.  Most range somewhere between, so no matter who you are there’s a small liberal arts college out there that’s about right for you in terms of who they’ll admit.  Nearly everyone lives in campus dorms at these places, and eats in campus dining halls.  Social life revolves around events on campus, and some of the people in your classes will live down the hall from you.  Under these circumstances it is easy to have fun and to make friendships that last a lifetime.

What about name recognition and prestige?  Larger universities are by definition better known, so you have to get used to people not having heard of your small college, or having them confuse it with another one.  However, most people know that small liberal arts colleges as a category offer a superior education, even if they haven’t heard of the one you attend.  But when it comes to transitioning into the world of work big universities may have the edge over small colleges.  Many small liberal arts colleges are located in rural areas or idyllic small towns where just aren’t very many jobs available locally, or working adults for you to meet.  The professors can advise you on how to become a professor like themselves, but don’t generally have a lot of contacts in business or government.  Maybe that’s one of the reasons small liberal arts colleges send a lot of their graduates directly on to medical school, law school, business school, Ph.D. programs, teacher training programs, and other kinds of graduate school.

Loren Pope, author of Colleges That Change Lives, is an advocate for this kind of education.  None of the forty colleges he writes about in his book are extremely selective.  Pope believes that too much focus on prestige and exclusivity is antithetical to true learning.  Here’s our own partial list of small liberal arts colleges with respectable reputations:

New England:
Amherst College
Bates College
Bennington College
Bowdoin College
Colby College
College of the Atlantic
College of the Holy Cross
Connecticut College
Hampshire College
Middlebury College
Mount Holyoke College
Smith College
Trinity College
Wellesley College
Wesleyan University
Williams College

New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey:
Allegheny College
Bard College
Bryn Mawr College
Bucknell University
Colgate University
Dickinson College
Elmira College
Franklin & Marshall College
Gettysburg College
Hamilton College
Hartwick College
Haverford College
Hobart and William Smith Colleges
Ithaca College
Lafayette College
Sarah Lawrence College
St. John’s College
St. Lawrence University
Skidmore College
Swarthmore College
Union College
Vassar College
Washington College
Washington and Jefferson College

Antioch College
Beloit College
Carleton College
Coe College
College of Wooster
Cornell College
Denison University
DePauw University
Earlham College
Grinnell College
Hillsdale College
Illinois Wesleyan University
Kalamazoo College
Kenyon College
Knox College
Lake Forest College
Lawrence University
Macalester College
Northland College
Oberlin College
Ohio Wesleyan University
Ripon College
Saint Olaf College
Wabash College
Wheaton College

Berea College
Davidson College
Eckerd College
Guilford College
Morehouse College
Oglethorpe University
Rhodes College
Spelman College
University of the South
Washington and Lee University

Claremont McKenna College
Colorado College
Harvey Mudd College
Lewis and Clark College
Mills College
Occidental College
Pomona College
Pitzer College
Reed College
St. John’s College of Santa Fe
Scripps College
University of Puget Sound
Whitman College
Whittier College
Willamette University

So many colleges!  A lot of them sound the same (count the “Lawrences”, “Saints”, “Smiths”, “Washingtons”, “Wesleyans” and “Williams.”)  They usually look the same too – ivy, bricks, trees, grass, young students.  How can you choose between them?  It would be an exercise in silliness to try to rank them academically, although US News & World Report does purport to do that.  Most of them really are very similar.  Picking a college is a bit like falling in love.  Something catches your attention and before you know it you feel that this is the right one for you.

*The images on this page are of Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York

“Great Books” Programs:

At St. John’s College everyone takes the same classes and earns the same B. A. degree.  There are no majors to choose from.  But what a program it is!  You read all the greatest books of Western civilization (about a hundred) from Euclid, Homer, Sophocles, Plato and Aristotle through Milton, Cervantes, Tolstoy, Adam Smith, Newton, Darwin, Einstein, Du Bois and T.S. Eliot.  You study ancient Greek for two years, French for two years and take a year of English poetry and prose.  Four years of math takes you through calculus and special relativity.  Three years of laboratory science (biology, chemistry, physics) gives you enough of a foundation to pursue graduate study in science or medicine.  You study music for two years.  It is “liberal arts” at its purest and most intense.  The scope and rigor of the St. John’s program makes most other college majors look pretty paltry.

What’s more, you get two campuses to choose from.  One of them is in Annapolis, Maryland.  This one has the traditional lawns, big trees and old brick buildings that we expect of an east coast liberal arts college.  In fact, it is one of the oldest college campuses in the country.  The other one is a beautiful modern campus in the hills overlooking Santa Fe, New Mexico.  The curriculum is the same at both places, so students can transfer between them or spend a year at one and then transfer back to the campus they started at.

You obviously have to be a reader and a thinker to go to St. John’s College.  It’s a place with very high academic standards, but the applicants are mostly self-selected so it’s also true that St. John’s admits most of its applicants.  After earning their B. A.’s, most St. John’s College students go to graduate school.  They end up in the same professions as their peers who attended more conventional colleges:  business, law, medicine, teaching, technology, etc.

Colleges where everyone takes the same things like this are rare.  Two others are Shimer College in Chicago and Thomas Aquinas College in southern California.  We suppose that in principle you could reconstruct part of a great books program within the context of a major in philosophy or literature at a more mainstream college, but we doubt it would be the same.

St. John’s College
Shimer College
Thomas Aquinas College

A few mainstream colleges have great books programs of varying length included among their other academic offerings, for example:

University of Notre Dame’s Program of Liberal Studies
St. Olaf College’s “The Great Conversation” Program
Azusa Pacific University’s Honors College


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