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Churchill, Phi Beta Kappa CEO, visits MC, lectures freshmen

Barry McNamara
Phi Beta Kappa Secretary John Churchill offers his observations about Monmouth College during his campus visit.

John Churchill, the secretary and chief executive officer of Phi Beta Kappa, returned to Monmouth College earlier this week to address its Introduction to Liberal Arts (ILA) students. He also met with faculty and with President Mauri Ditzler, at whose 2005 inauguration he had presented the keynote address.
In his role at Phi Beta Kappa, which was founded in 1776, Churchill is the leader of an organization that is synonymous with the liberal arts. Tasked with introducing MC’s first-year students to that concept, Churchill said that not all freshman seminar programs have Monmouth’s scope.
“Monmouth’s Introduction to Liberal Arts is not necessarily standard,” he said. “It’s an intentional effort to help students see explicitly what it all means, to begin to roll it all together and point it toward life after graduation. It’s a big signal that you’re doing something distinctive here.”
Not only is Monmouth’s program impressive, he said, but so are its students.
“The students were really sharp, and they asked good questions,” he said. “They had an air of really caring about the subject and taking it seriously.”
In addition, he called attention to the college’s facilities.
“The physical expanse of the campus has got to be acknowledged,” he said, pointing out “the immaculately-conceived science lab and political economy and commerce building. What a coup – it’s fascinating.”
Continuing about the Center for Science and Business, he said, “The conceptual work that went into a building with such disparate disciplines shows the linkage that can happen at a place like this – a linkage between intellectual pursuit and practical application. It also has its roots in the careers of Monmouth graduates and is the embodiment of that synergy that is such a signature of a liberal arts school.”
Churchill believes in “old school,” having studied at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar and at Yale University, where he received his Ph.D. He believes there are dangers with the new developments in education related to technology and online teaching.
“The pace of change in American higher education has accelerated over the last decade,” he said. “New opportunities and issues that were well over the horizon the last time I was here are now right in front of us. What shape they make take and what effect they’ll have remains to be seen.”
Earlier in the day, Churchill said, he read an article about Colorado State University approving transfer credits for courses taken through the Udacity platform.
“That’s one of the first drops of a trickle that may soon become a torrent,” he said. “Nobody knows where it’s going, and I don’t think we’ve thought our way into it, in terms of the effects it will have on students and the institution, on enrollment. A college degree reflects an intentional design by the institution. Now, with developments such as online courses, the experience is much less coherent.”
Churchill said critics of higher education often point to its high cost and perceived shortcomings in the areas of efficiency and practicality.
“When thinking about ‘outcome assessment,’ there’s a demand for a college education to have an immediate economic relevance to the student,” he said.
He then told a story about two college officials who had similar tasks. One was charged with designing a new four-year degree program at a two-year college and was told that each new course should relate to a specific skill that would lead to a job after graduation. The other official, who worked at a four-year college on the East Coast, was in charge of creating a new general science course for the non-major. His loftier assignment was, “How will this course improve the understanding of science for someone running for Congress?”
“Now, you may think that sounds pretentious,” said Churchill. “Surely, only a small number of this school’s graduates will ever run for Congress. But hopefully, they’ll be voting for someone running for Congress. … This institution chose to focus on the broader social purpose and citizenship – ideas that will return over and over again in the decades ahead. This ‘planting a seed’ is something that’s at the very point of higher education.”
He continued, “My worry, though, is that the former attitude is getting all the play. People are troubled by the economic downturn that we’re still in.”
While the former attitude might lead to a job on graduation day, that job may only have a small window of existence because of what Churchill called “continuous change.”
“Today’s students need to be able to cope with change and to recognize lasting values over temporary circumstances. If we can inspire them to continue learning, that will go on throughout their lives. … Monmouth College does a superb job of giving personally applicable life and job skills. Those types of things can be subtle, but they’re very evident at Monmouth.”
In his convocation talk to Monmouth’s ILA students, Churchill proposed the question, “What is the role of a liberal arts education in a life well lived?” He told the students about Alexander the Great, who received the best possible liberal arts education at the time – personal instruction from Aristotle himself.
“Alexander died before he was 33, and his empire disintegrated,” said Churchill. “He died young, and he left wreckage. There were some accomplishments, but his means to all of those ends was horrific.”
Alexander, he argued, was perhaps the best example of the philosophy that “solutions are whatever the strongest person can impose.” By contrast, Churchill said, “the skills of deliberation are the most important part of what liberal arts students learn.”
He told the students, “You are all making a very promising effort to ‘get it.’ Monmouth College is committed to being a place where even a character like Alexander the Great might get it.”