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March 11, 2007

This fall, Marcia and I sent our middle son off to college. Like many parents, we felt conflicting emotions: pride, melancholy, excitement, and, dare I say, some measure of relief. Like most 18-year-olds, he had been spending less and less time at home and was ready for more independence. Still, we miss his presence in the house. We find ourselves looking for his car in the driveway, listening for his voice down the hall, and marveling at the extra food in our refrigerator. Mostly, we hope we have provided the foundation he needs to be a happy, healthy, and successful adult.

At Lewis & Clark, we are also in the business of laying foundations–largely through the study of the liberal arts. The undergraduate, graduate, and law schools share a respect for liberal learning and strive to provide students with the intellectual tools they will need for a lifetime.

This fall, in the College of Arts and Sciences we launched Exploration and Discovery, the newest iteration of the first-year course. In the fall semester, students explore enduring questions and ideas in the liberal arts tradition by reading from a common list of works by Descartes, Galileo, Kant, Plato, Shelley, Sophocles, Virgil, and biblical authors.

In the spring, students attend multidisciplinary seminars that focus on the human condition over time and across cultures. Instructors have the freedom to create seminars based on their interests and expertise. This spring, students may select from a variety of topics ranging from the American wilderness, the state of the family, and the nature of deception, to transnational cultures, the art of war, and vamps and vampires. Although the course is still in its infancy, initial reports are highly favorable.

Perhaps I am biased, but I truly believe our Exploration and Discovery course is among the best paradigms I’ve even seen for the first-year immersion course. I say this from a perspective of considerable experience, having been a teaching assistant for “Plato to NATO” while a graduate student at the University of Michigan, assisted on a similar course as a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford, and helped establish a first-year seminar at Rice while serving in that university’s administration.

What makes our program at Lewis & Clark so powerful? It forces students to think deeply about first principles, about themselves and their role in the universe. Inquiry of this sort moves us not only to examine the nature of belief and knowledge, but also to develop an understanding of ourselves as social creatures and as bearers of responsibility to our families, our peers, our communities, and our collective future, as well as to ourselves. It’s a model of education that has much in common with the interaction that took place between Aristotle and his students 2,300 years ago, yet it has never been more relevant to a particular time than it is to ours, right now.

Some contend that liberal arts colleges are moribund. On the contrary, I firmly believe we not only provide the best education for the present, but also represent the wave of the future. Given the pace of technological and economic change, no applied skill sets being learned today are going to be of much use 20 years from now. But writing, thinking, analyzing and synthesizing information, linking together and articulating ideas–these skills are applicable to any circumstance and time, and they are skills that we teach exceptionally well.

As I also know from experience–I did my undergraduate studies at Earlham, a liberal arts college similar in many ways to Lewis & Clark–one truly appreciates this kind of education years, even decades, after graduation. This is one of the great strengths of an education grounded in the liberal arts. When you encounter ideas 20, 30, 40, or more years after college, you do so with an attuned mind, a trained mind. Ideas you first wrestled with decades ago take on added meaning, depth, and texture. That’s why, in the long run, the only education that really equips students for success in the world is an education that teaches them to think for a lifetime–an education that provides the basic tools of rational discourse and critical thought. It’s the kind of education that our undergraduate, graduate, and law students encounter every day at Lewis & Clark.

Sometimes I catch myself looking out the window of my office toward Akin Hall, where my son now resides as a first-year student. I wonder what he’s learning and how he’ll apply his Lewis & Clark education in the world. Even though Marcia and I no longer accompany him physically through life, we accompany him emotionally as a result of our unconditional love and support. In life as in learning, it’s the foundation that makes all the difference.

Thomas J. Hochstettler


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