A Liberal-Arts College That Gets It Right

February 10, 2014

In the autumn of 2012, a year after becoming president of Davidson College, Carol Quillen gave a lecture about the intimacy of relationships with the dead. A scholar of Italian humanism by training, she read Machiavelli’s account of his nighttime journeys into the "ancient courts of ancient men," where, among the authors of antiquity, he was "not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their kindness answer me; and for four hours of time I do not feel boredom, I forget every trouble, I do not dread poverty, I am not frightened by death; entirely I give myself over to them."

The lecture was part of Davidson’s undergraduate humanities curriculum, a program with its own long history that now struggles to compete for students’ attention. Quillen’s job is to make the classic American liberal-arts college prosperous and relevant in a time of accelerated expectation and high expense.

Quillen grew up in a Presbyterian family in Delaware, where she received a Quaker education before leaving for the University of Chicago in the early 1980s. One of her professors was the late Karl Weintraub—she still refers to him as "Mr. Weintraub," all these years later—who taught an exacting course on Western civilization. That helped point her to Princeton and graduate school, working under the historian Peter Brown. She traveled to Rome, London, and Paris on scholarships, learning Latin and Italian to study Petrarch’s readings of Augustine.

In her exploration of humanism, she told me, she discovered the "experience of revelation through reading the words of people from a distant, alien age." Quillen remains devoted to the close reading of canonical texts. "Life is short," she said, "and those guys were smart." Quillen has a talent for combining academic eloquence with candor and self-doubt.

As her academic career progressed, Quillen was haunted by the contradiction between humanism’s emancipatory concept of universal personhood and the way Western civilizations that grew out of the Renaissance tradition could so quickly and brutally dehumanize populations that did not readily agree to ideological conversion. College administration was "a kind of seduction," but also a chance to bring her ideas about our ethical obligations—to the living and the dead—to more people. When Davidson came calling, in 2011, she left Rice University to lead one of the relatively few higher-education institutions with an authentic claim to being organized in the liberal-arts tradition.

Davidson possesses a proud history, a devoted alumni base, and a sterling national reputation. It can pick and choose among applicants who receive generous financial aid and almost always graduate on time. The student-to-faculty ratio is held steady at about 10 to one, nearly all tenure-track. The college even manages to maintain a healthy Division I sports program while avoiding the kind of scandal that is presently consuming the academic reputation of the University of North Carolina, 130 miles east on I-85 in Chapel Hill.

When I visited the college recently, the tenured professors had a lot to say about their approach to teaching undergraduates, which means that they are teaching undergraduates and care enough about it to have an approach. This alone is different from what you often hear at big research universities or adjunct-dominated commuter schools. There’s also a lot of classroom collaboration among professors from different departments, to the point where it seems unremarkable. My questions about how members of the faculty support and evaluate one another’s teaching produced thoughtful answers, not puzzled stares. It was refreshing.

Yet even at colleges like Davidson, there are things to worry about. The endowment is healthy but smaller than those of most of its peers. Quillen is faced with the kind of tyrannical long-term spending-and-revenue projections that result from fixed labor costs and a weak economy. Davidson recently joined the edX MOOC consortium, in which it will offer two courses this year, in medicinal chemistry and the representation of HIV/AIDS in science and literature. But it’s not clear how online education will alter the near-term financial prospects of a specialized college that is more than 175 years old with fewer than 2,000 students. The realities of modern higher-education finance make businesspeople out of even the most scholarly presidents.

Davidson is also grappling with a change in what its students want from an undergraduate education. Many alumni work at the college, and on the basis of my very unscientific poll, those who attended in the 1970s say that half of the students then enrolled in the signature two-year course in the Western tradition. Today the proportion stands at 13 percent. The college attracts more people aiming for medical school than for sustained immersion in the humanities.

I asked Quillen about her obligation to expose students to the core liberal arts. Don’t they all need that experience of revelation? She said, persuasively, that the kind of intense, focused academic work that produces such moments can occur in many fields, not just during communion with ancient thinkers. She believes her faculty members are committed to providing that experience, and I suspect she is largely right.

We expect much, perhaps too much, from liberal-arts colleges these days. We ask them to represent goals and ideals that many institutions of higher learning have abandoned or never represented in the first place. Four years is a small amount of time to fully ground people in the complex traditions of philosophy, art, science, history, and literature. Eighteen-year-olds are free to make choices that are understandably pragmatic when tuition is dear and jobs are hard to come by.

Teaching the liberal arts well is also a distinctively difficult task. Years after Carol Quillen left Chicago, Mr. Weintraub wrote her a letter. "Sometimes, when I have spent an hour or more, pouring all my enthusiasm and sensitivities into an effort to tell these stories in the fullness in which I see and experience them, I feel drained and exhausted. I think it works on the student, but I do not really know. Much of the time I feel dreadfully alone with it—and don’t even know whether I am alone with it."

Davidson is lucky to have a president who lives with such words. As long as liberal-arts colleges continue to be animated by the urgency of our obligations to people long gone and yet to become, there will be a place for them in any civilization worthy of the name.

Kevin Carey is director of the education-policy program at the New America Foundation.