William D. “Bro” Adams makes forceful pitch for a liberal arts education 

Humanities5 MIN READ

In a new book, the former Colby president calls for educational practices “that are thoughtfully aligned” with the lives students will live

William "Bro" Adams
Former President William “Bro” Adams has a new ebook out heralding the benefits of a liberal arts education.
By Bob KeyesPhotography by Gabe Souza
April 5, 2022

Former Colby President William D. “Bro” Adams has written a new e-book that makes the case that a liberal arts education is more important than ever for navigating a post-Covid world.

Adams also argues that “post-pandemic” is a misnomer if it means returning to the way things were and says a broad-based liberal arts education will give students better options for finding their way in the new world than the narrow approach of academic specialization.

“The world we live in now and that our students will inherit has been permanently and powerfully reshaped by the pandemic and the full intertwined events – political, economic, social, and cultural – of the past several years,” he writes in the introduction to Getting Ready: The Liberal Arts and Sciences in the Post-Pandemic World, published by the American Association of Colleges and Universities. “What we owe our students is not the illusion of a return to a pre-pandemic state of things but a renewed commitment to educational practices that are thoughtfully aligned with the lives they will live.”

The American Association of Colleges and Universities is an influential, Washington, D.C.-based member organization dedicated to promoting “the vitality and democratic purposes” of an undergraduate liberal education. Its members include college and university presidents and other leaders in higher education from across the country.

The association published Adams’s 34-page e-book and invited him to address the presidents at a virtual annual meeting earlier this year. Lynn Pasquerella, the association’s president, heard Adams talk about the future of liberal arts when he was a senior fellow at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and she wanted to share his message with a wider audience.

“Anyone who is interested in the future of higher education will want to read this book, not only faculty, staff, and administrators at liberal arts colleges, but the skeptics and those who are wondering how we can find a way forward at a time when there is a growing mistrust of higher education and expertise in the academy,” said Pasquerella, who became friends with Adams when she was president of Mount Holyoke College and he was at Colby. “Bro is such an articulate and compelling proponent for the value of a liberal arts education, for our students, and for our democracy.”

“Relaxing the hold of traditional patterns of disciplinary specialization and graduate and professional education on the undergraduate curriculum also opens the door to innovations more attuned to the needs of students seeking broad preparation for moral, working, and civic lives.”

William “Bro” Adams

Adams served as Colby’s president from 2000 until 2014. After leaving Colby, he spent three years as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. In 2017 he began a two-year term as a senior fellow at the Mellon Foundation. He lives in Portland, Maine.

As a Mellon Foundation fellow, he had been asked to deliver the Malcolm Lester Phi Beta Kappa Lectures on the Liberal Arts and Public Life at Mercer University in Georgia. By the time those lectures were due, in fall 2020, the pandemic was raging. At the same time, the country struggled with race relations, the political turmoil of a presidential election, and deepening cultural schisms brought on by divisive politics. The result, Adams writes, was turbulence “unlike anything we’ve known in the United States since the 1960s and early 1970s.”

The pandemic impacts health, economics, and politics, and it requires a scientific, cultural, and historical approach to bring all of it in context and find a way forward. “The pandemic was a case-study in how important educational breadth is to understand what is going on around us,” Adams said in a phone interview. “It is a perfect argument for why the liberal arts and sciences together are foundational to understanding the world around us.”

Adams highlights Colby’s AI institute 

Writing in Getting Ready, Adams cites Colby’s commitment to understanding the complexities of the new world with its integration of artificial intelligence across its academic offerings. “In 2000, Colby College in Maine announced a major AI initiative designed specifically to serve undergraduates across the curriculum,” Adams writes, referring to the College’s Davis Institute for Artificial Intelligence, the first cross-disciplinary institute for AI at a liberal arts college.

The goal of the institute is to prepare students for a world in which AI transforms industries, careers, creativity, scholarship, and discovery. Adams singles out and praises Colby for “starting to move down this road” of integration with its AI efforts.

“Artificial intelligence has interdisciplinary roots and manifestations for philosophy, neuroscience, computer science, mathematics, the arts, music, biology, and economics. As with digital technology in general, scholars will find in AI chances for critical exploration of the impact and meaning of automation and robotics on contemporary social, economic, and cultural institutions and practices,” he writes. “And much more should be done to expose students of computer science to the history and philosophical foundations of AI.”

Throughout his writing, Adams bases his arguments on the notion of “readiness” and the idea that education is about preparing young people to be engaged citizens. Adams credits the political philosopher Danielle Allen for first exploring this idea, and he pursues her idea of readiness in the realm of work and careers, civic participation, and meaning and meaning-making.

Of work and meaning, he writes, “Like work itself, work’s meaning is woefully under-represented in the curriculum of most liberal arts colleges and programs. Yet few things are more important to an understanding of work readiness than to consider the place work occupies in a good life, however one defines it. Liberal arts colleges and programs could foster compelling student engagement across the curriculum—especially in the humanities and social sciences—by posing questions about why we work, what we gain (and lose) from work, and where our work situates us relative to others.”

He challenges his colleagues to change how and what they teach, encouraging a cross-disciplinary approach so students are exposed to an array of ideas. “Relaxing the hold of traditional patterns of disciplinary specialization and graduate and professional education on the undergraduate curriculum also opens the door to innovations more attuned to the needs of students seeking broad preparation for moral, working, and civic lives,” he writes.

Additional information about Adams’s e-book is available here.

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