The Value of Lateral Learning
Marlboro College is featured in glowing terms in the new edition of Colleges That Change Lives—a publication cited by some 40 percent of our prospective undergraduate students. We also maintain our highest academic rating of 99 percent in the Princeton Review’s Top 377 Colleges. Marlboro is listed as #12 in Newsweek’s “Most Liberal” college ratings, along with other educationally liberating colleges like Wesleyan and Swarthmore. While it is always best to emphasize the positive, we must also realize that Marlboro is currently in the midst of the most contentious atmosphere for higher education in memory.
From the media to the U.S. Department of Education, there is constant questioning of the value of a college education related to its cost, the rise in student debt, “accountability,” preparation for vocation, and the amounts of money devoted to physical plants and to administrative salaries. Major universities and for-profit enterprises are investing a huge amount in remote learning, and some are predicting that on-line courses will change the nature of the undergraduate degree.
One of the major challenges to the Marlboro model is the lack of understanding of what a liberal arts education is and its value to the individual and the society. There is also a perceived disconnect between the liberal arts and the ability to gain a job. Demographic shifts in the college-age population mean there are fewer applicants from New England and more “first generation” college students. A stunning 50 percent of college students are now starting out in a community college. All these factors combine with a slow economic recovery and increasing economic anxiety among college-aged students.
How is the value of a liberal education expressed? My new favorite book about higher education is Columbia University humanities scholar Andrew Delbanco’s College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be. Among the many gifts of a small, liberal arts, residential college, he reminds us, is “lateral learning:” that is, we learn from each other in classes, in the dining hall, in the library, in the studios and labs, on the trails, in the late-night dorm discussions.
Here at Marlboro, lateral learning includes community and trustee deliberations about the college’s future. We are learning from each other how to weather the economic, demographic and perceptional challenges and to articulate and stand together for deeper understanding and informed citizenship, along with finding one’s vocation. I know we are resilient and imaginative; we will continue to strengthen Marlboro and increase public awareness of our valuable contribution to the world of education.