The Best Kind of College

The Best Kind of College

A new book that looks at the strengths of America’s small liberal arts colleges features two essays written by Williams faculty members.

The Best Kind of College: An Insiders’ Guide to America’s Small Liberal Arts College (SUNY Press) is a collection of essays written by faculty from several liberal arts colleges across the country. Robert Bell, the Frederick Latimer Wells Professor of English, contributed one about the poet Robert Frost’s teaching method and approach. Justin Crowe ’03, associate professor of political science and chair of the Leadership Studies program, wrote about how a liberal arts education isn’t just about becoming a better student but also a better person.

Bell’s essay delves into Frost’s career as a professor at Dartmouth and Amherst and his sometimes unorthodox approach to teaching. Frost was “a difficult character, irascible, egocentric and haunted,” Bell says. “I wondered what kind of a colleague and, more important, teacher such a famous personality in fact was. I discovered several surprising aspects of his career as a teacher.”

For instance, at Amherst, Frost rarely assigned students to write papers. “He didn’t believe you could teach writing, and he thought corrections and comments a waste of his time. ‘To learn to write is to learn to have ideas,’” Bell writes.

Crowe’s essay discusses how two seemingly unconnected experiences—counseling a frustrated student and attending his own son’s kindergarten orientation—helped him to see liberal arts education in a new light, as a three-part transformative process. First, there is a process to become a better student, then a better citizen and finally a better person. Crowe writes that recognizing and taking advantage of “learnable moments” long after one leaves college are what helps a person compose a life that matters to them. “Liberal arts education is about—should be about—teaching how to learn,” he writes.

The editors of the book, Professors Susan McWilliams and John E. Seery of Pomona, are careful to point out in the introduction that liberal arts colleges only educate about 1 percent of students nationwide but are relevant in the national discussion about higher education because of their intensive small classroom teaching experiences.

“The best approach to education requires face-to-face discussions, quirky explorations, classroom and laboratory risk-taking, relational learning, and singular rather than standardized approaches to pedagogy,” they write. “In short, the best approach to education is the small liberal arts college approach to education, and that is a truth that our nation’s movers and shakers, and citizens at large, would do well to heed.”

And that is exactly why Bell was interested in contributing to the book.

“At a time when the liberal arts generally are often questioned and sometimes derogated,” he says, “I hope that this book will inspire teachers and students.”