Insights from Saint John's University President Michael Hemesath

Insights from Saint John's University President Michael Hemesath/

Reflections on a Liberal Arts Education: Part II

Technology and the Liberal Arts

Technology and the liberal arts are sometimes characterized as being at odds with one another.  (Though, of course, the liberal arts are more accurately called the liberal arts and sciences.)

STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) are often touted for their practical, vocational opportunities while the liberal arts, especially the humanities, are often caricatured for their supposed lack of applicability.  “What are you going to do with a degree in philosophy, English, art history……?”  (See here , here , here and here )

Such simplistic characterizations of STEM or the liberal arts are neither realistic or helpful when thinking about education either for individuals or society.  A well-educated person needs to know something about both sciences and the humanities, almost regardless of their vocational choice.  Society and the economy obviously benefit from all fields of knowledge and, maybe most importantly, from the interactions between fields.

I was reminded of this important point, among others, when reading The Innovators by Walter Issacson, a fascinating history of the digital revolution from Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace to Steve Jobs and Google.  (Issacson also wrote a recent biography of Jobs.)

At first blush, the digital revolution might seem to be all about STEM, but Issacson’s thoughtful and “tenderhearted history”  draws some important lessons that are relevant for students and educators across all fields.

First, throughout the book Issacson considers the relative importance of lone wolf inventors/geniuses versus collaborations and teams in bringing about the digital revolution, and he comes down firmly on the side of the latter.

First and foremost…creativity is a collaborative process.  Innovation comes from teams more often than from the lightbulb moments of lone geniuses.  This is true of every era of creative ferment.

Furthermore, Issacson writes:

The digital age may seem revolutionary, but it was based on expanding the ideas handed down from previous generations.  The collaborations were not merely among contemporaries but also between generations.  The best innovators were those who understood the trajectory of technological change and took the baton from innovators who preceded them….The most productive teams brought together people with a wide array of specialties.

Second, Issacson also makes an interesting observation about how collaborations best succeed:

Even though the Internet provided a tool for virtual and distant collaborations, another lesson of the digital-age innovations is that, now as in the past, physical proximity is beneficial.  There is something special…about meetings in the flesh that cannot be replicated digitally.

A lesson that residential educational institutions live out every day, with students working and playing together.

Finally, Issacson concludes with the most important lesson of the digital revolution: even as computing machines get faster, more versatile and increasingly powerful, people bring an irreplaceable element to the human-machine symbiosis. Quoting IBM research director John Kelly, “The machines will be more rational and analytical.  People will provide judgment, intuition, empathy, a moral compass, and human creativity.”

Humans think different.  Issacson writes:

Human creativity involves values, intentions, aesthetic judgments, emotions personal consciousness, and a moral sense.  These are what the arts and humanities teach us—and why those realms are as valuable a part of education as science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.  If we mortals are to uphold our end of the human-computer symbiosis, if we are to retain a role as the creative partners of our machines, we must continue to nurture the wellsprings of our imagination and originality and humanity.

In 1959,  English novelist and chemist C. P. Snow famously wrote of the divide between “Two Cultures,” the arts and the sciences. Issacson’s powerful history of the digital revolution reminds us of the continuing need to link those two areas of intellectual endeavor for the thriving of individuals and the betterment of society, which is what a great liberal arts education is all about.

By |February 2nd, 2018|Categories: Higher Education|0 Comments

Reflections on a Liberal Arts Education: Part I, Essentials of a Liberal Arts Education?

A thoughtful note from a friend and fellow alumnus spurred me to some New Year’s reflections on the liberal arts and how we endeavor to educate the young men* who come to Saint John’s University.

While I have argued elsewhere that institutional communities made up of many diverse individuals can rarely be said to have a single “opinion” on political or social matters, I certainly believe that institutions, like colleges and universities, do have missions.  Faculty, staff and students all have a variety of choices in the matter of where they will work or study, and presumably the mission of the educational institution they choose is one of the most significant factors in that important decision.

One of the foundational elements of Saint John’s University’s mission is to provide a liberal arts education, and in this we are in exceptional company.  Most of our finest academic peers in Minnesota—Carleton, Macalester, St. Olaf, Gustavus Adolphus and Concordia-Moorhead—are liberal arts colleges, and most of the finest institutions in the United States—the Ivies, University of Chicago, Stanford—provide their undergraduates with a liberal arts education.  It is also true that many more comprehensive universities, especially the flagship public institutions, also provide a liberal arts education for many of their students.

While there is general agreement that a liberal arts education focuses on the arts and sciences, rather than on professional or vocational training, educators and students have wide-ranging beliefs about the specific purpose of such an education.

In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education essay, Hunter Rawlings III, former president of the University of Iowa and Cornell University, offered some stimulating reflections on what is important in a liberal education.  He, not surprisingly for a classicist, eloquently uses poetry, art and literature to propose “five essentials of a liberal education.”


1. Liberation: to liberate our students’ minds from the constraints of their often unexamined upbringing and natural provincialism and to produce their own “complex meanings.”
2. Irreverence: to encourage students to be serious about learning but not to impose “a stultifying reverence” on knowledge and education.
3. Pleasure: to have students have joy and excitement while they learn, in school and throughout life.
4. Provocation: to challenge students, to stretch them, to make them uncomfortable.
5. Courage: to give students the courage to try new and hard ideas and endeavors.

Rawlings acknowledges that his list is likely not exhaustive, writing, “Liberation, irreverence, pleasure, provocation, courage — those are, in my view, five essentials of liberal education. Many more could be proposed, of course.”

It is certainly hard to disagree with Rawlings’ list.  A student that graduates having meaningfully experienced these attributes of a liberal arts education will be well prepared for a lifetime of ongoing education and learning, with all the joys and successes that come with it.

Yet it seems to me there is something essential and even foundational missing from this list—something that distinguishes a liberal arts education at places like Saint John’s from those at Cornell or big public universities like the University of Iowa.  There is no clear reference to the spiritual lives of students.  Rawlings does not mention a search for truth, the development of values and morals, or the exploration of ultimate questions about meaning.  He does quote a physicist who suggests a liberal education should consider, “What is justice?  What is a good life?”  But Rawlings seems to consciously skirt those ultimate questions of meaning, existence and the timeless truths that invariably touch on students’ spiritual lives.

This absence would be unthinkable at a Catholic and Benedictine institution—and likely also at any institution that continues to be grounded in its faith based origins.  (Ironically, of course, the earliest United States universities were founded, in part, to educate clergy.)

None of Rawlings essentials would be missing from a liberal education at Saint John’s but a quick look at our mission, vision and values clearly reminds students that there is another essential that is at least as important at those noted above:

Mission of Saint John’s University
Grounded in Catholic and Benedictine values and tradition, Saint John’s University provides young men a distinctive residential liberal arts education, preparing them to reach their full potential and instilling in them the values and aspiration to lead lives of significance and principled achievement.

Vision for the College of Arts and Sciences
Saint John’s University seeks to be one of the nation’s great Catholic liberal arts colleges by providing the best holistic learning experience for men in the country.

We will inspire undergraduate men to new heights of intellectual, spiritual, physical and social development that is informed by ethical reflection and grounded in our Catholic and Benedictine tradition.

Dedicated to the pursuit of understanding, wisdom, and the common good, Saint John’s University is committed to the following values:

Community built upon relationships of hospitality, respect, cooperation, and challenge.
Openness to learning, inquiry, beauty, truth, and difference.
Respect for persons, tradition, creativity, experience, faith, reason, and religious practice.
Depth in understanding, relationships, faith, and spirituality.
Sacredness of God, being, truth, place, nature, and knowledge.
Passion for excellence, truth, learning, beauty, love, and personal growth.

This essential part of a Saint John’s liberal education is certainly not to suggest that the goal is to preach, proselytize or convert.  Students are not told what to think or believe, but encouraged to explore the spiritual side of their humanity, something that is a natural part of their growth into adulthood.  A student’s answers to the questions of what he believes or does not believe is often foundational to the person he becomes and the life he chooses to lead.

There is nothing wrong with the five essentials that Rawlings proposes, but at Saint John’s (among other institutions with ongoing commitments to religious traditions) to think about a liberal education without immediately considering the ultimate questions of meaning, purpose and spiritual concerns misses an important, maybe the important, purpose of the liberal arts.  Most of the finest liberal arts institutions were  founded around these questions, but a much small number of those institutions continue to make these questions central to the education of their students.  At Saint John’s University, we still do.

*With our single academic program, the women who are educated at the College of Saint Benedict have an experience very much like that of the men at Saint John’s, but, given my role, it is appropriate that I limit my claims to what happens in Collegeville.

By |January 5th, 2018|Categories: Higher Education|1 Comment

Tax Reform and Higher Education

Now that the Tax Cuts and Job Act of 2017 has been passed it is possible to examine the implications for higher education.  The tax reform bill is of particular interest to higher education because from its earliest drafts, Congress, and the House of Representatives, in particular, seemed to target higher education in ways that would raise costs for families and students.  This apparent objective flies in the face the increasing need for investments in human capital for young people (see here and here) and of vocal concerns about the increasing costs of a college education (see here here and here).

The initial version of the tax reform included the taxing of tuition benefits for employees, graduate students and employees dependents.  It eliminated the deduction for student loan interest, as well as tax-free financing for private college and university capital projects.  The bill also proposed a 2% tax on endowment returns that would have affected about 250 institutions (Saint John’s University would have fallen just outside the original threshold).  These provisions naturally spurred institutions, students and families to lobby Congress, arguing that the proposed changes would make it harder for students to afford what is increasingly becoming a required credential for the middle class and for institutions to hold down tuition costs.

In the end, the outcome was not as dire as first feared, as the Senate bill, which was largely the basis for the final bill, was not as punitive toward higher education .*  The taxing of tuition benefits was removed from the final bill.  The deductibility of student loan interest was retained and only with refinancing of capital projects does the interest become taxable.  The endowment tax remained but was dropped to 1.4% of investment returns and the endowment per student threshold was raised to $500,000, which dropped the number of institutions affected to approximately 32.

From the perspective of the academy and economic research that emphasizes the importance of investment in human capital for long-run economic growth, good sense mostly prevailed.

Yet three questions remain.

    1. Why would Congress punish private institutions?  The endowment tax will only apply to private institutions despite the fact that many public institutions also have billion dollar endowments.  One of the strengths of the American higher education system is the diversity of options available to students: 4500+ institutions of higher education, of which 2200+ are four year degree granting institutions.  Private institutions range widely in size, program offerings and the nature of the student experience.  They are also among some of the world’s finest schools and draw many thousands of the best international students in the world to the United States.  While private institutions do benefits from some government grant and loan programs, they do not directly seek government revenues in the way public institutions do.  Anything that would weaken this sector seems to be cutting off one’s educational nose to spite one’s growth-focused face.
    2. Why tax endowments?  While endowments certainly confer prestige and have a significant impact in some rankings, they serve a very important role in providing financial stability in uncertain times and allow institutions to make a long run reputational/quality promise to students and faculty.  Endowments also, in normal economic times when market returns are at long-run historic levels, allow for institutions to do some combination of: covering costs that rise usually rise faster than inflation (labor costs), moderating tuition increases and increasing programming, research activity or educational quality.  In short, endowments provide an important source of revenue that allows institutions, at least potentially, to control tuition while maintaining institutional quality.  Taxing them makes this less possible. In addition, the gifts that schools used to build their endowments were given with the understanding that the returns would be untaxed, as colleges and universities are non-profits.  This new provision obviously violates that understanding and potentially impacts future giving.  Furthermore, it opens the door for taxing any charitable institution’s endowment, from less well-off schools to foundations of any kind.  This change represents a fundamental change in the way charitable organizations are treated in tax law.
    3. Have Congressional and public attitudes toward higher education changed?  This last question strikes me as the most important one.  Some commentators have observed that the provision targeting higher education are primarily political.  The Minding the Campus blog argues :

      Public attitudes toward universities have distinctly soured in recent years. What the public perceives as outrageous student behavior, feckless university leadership, and excessive tuition fees has combined with a growing hostility by Republican lawmakers angered over the large political donations and public criticism that academics have made attempting to oust them from office. Lawmakers are growing tired of feeding the mouths that bite them. Revenues raised by taxing colleges can modestly help fund other tax reductions that lawmakers want to make, which are probably economically beneficial to the well over 90 percent of the population living outside the Ivory Towers of Academia.

This hypothesis does not address why the provisions in the new tax law focus on private institutions (recall incidents at Berkley and Evergreen State), but it is consistent with the current contentious political environment.

If this interpretation of the tax provisions is accurate, the question for higher education and the public is whether these views are temporary or represent a fundamental shift in attitudes. There is very strong evidence that a well-educated populace plays an important role in long-run economic growth (for example see here and here ). There is also evidence that the changing role of technology in the economy is requiring a more educated workforce. All of which suggests that higher education has and will continue to play a central role in the prosperity of individuals, their families and the country as a whole.

To let politics get in the way of educating young people, either on campuses or in legislative bodies, will leave us all poorer.

*One other provision in the final version of the tax law that is likely to impact colleges and universities is the doubling of the standard deduction, which will cause the number of itemizing taxpayer to drop from about 30% of taxpayers to 5%. Though this change was largely aimed at tax simplification rather than targeting higher education and other charities.