In recent decades, liberal arts education has increasingly emphasized hands-on work beyond the classroom. The identities and commitments that we all have beyond the campus energize the on-campus community and give a small school global reach. Experiences outside the classroom can inform and enrich classroom discussions, while more academic analysis can also guide and inspire undertakings in the world, in an iterative process that refines critical thinking and moral consideration. More than in past generations, the curiosity and drive that students bring to liberal learning come from real-world experiences, which may range from archeological digs to tutoring to Web page design. Students’ restlessness within the ivory tower of academe is also stirred by uncertainties about how many careers they each will have on how many continents. Channeling this energy will deepen their intellectual and ethical development.
These forms of learning have proliferated at Amherst, though not fast enough to keep pace with student interest or the initiatives of peer campuses and not coherently enough to ensure that co-curricular activities always enhance course work. Students come to us with much broader exposure to the world through the media than through direct contact. Although many list community service as part of their high school resumés, few have had opportunities within the classroom to engage critically with the history, policies, and cultural practices that have shaped those communities. As is equally true of foreign language acquisition, experimental science, and the performing arts, we lose an important learning opportunity when we fail to integrate direct experience into learning. Students underestimate the ethical ambiguity and sheer real-world messiness of the problems we examine only in the classroom. Amherst needs to increase opportunities in all of these areas and provide ways to integrate off-campus experience with academic work that is intellectually compelling to both faculty and students.