Williams College President: The Importance of the Liberal Arts

Professor Adam Falk, President of Williams College, in Hong Kong on June 28, 2013. (Asia Society Hong Kong Center)

HONG KONG, June 28, 2013 — If, in some hypothetical worst-case scenario, colleges could only teach one major, what major would that be?

"History," answered Professor Adam Falk, President of Williams College.

The dusty past? Stepping backwards in time? Surely in today's global age of non-stop change, students should be educated at the so-called "cutting edge?"

Not so, argued Professor Falk in his discussion on the purpose, value and impact of a liberal arts education. There is perhaps a "misapprehension," he said, that students must be trained technically to be on the cutting edge. The problem, however, is that cutting edges move. They can't be anticipated.

What can be anticipated, though, is the unceasing value of skills like intellectual adaptability, independence, oral and written expression, collaboration and critical thinking.

"The faster the world changes, the more education, I believe, is less about technical things but about these capacities," said Professor Falk. And history, he explained, provides rigorous training in those capacities.

Equally important in a liberal arts education is the people. Much like parenting, education has to be done by people. "You can't educate college students without spending time with them," he said. Of course, people are expensive, but it is an investment that has to be made. "It's a societal choice," he added.

And although Professor Falk sees the value in massive open online courses (MOOCs), he cautions that technology can both remove and enhance the human element.

Ultimately, Professor Falk believes, college education prepares students for citizenship. And if there is an excessive focus on hard, technical skills at the expense of a "softer" liberal arts education, it is democracy and the civil society at large that stands to lose the most.

Reported by Mary Hui

Video: Watch the complete talk (54 min.)



Related link:
Asia Blog interview with Adam Falk