Dr. Bruce Leslie Discusses the Liberal Arts Education

November 01, 2010
John B. D. Potter '11

Bruce LeslieDr. Christopher Howard's inauguration as the President of Hampden-Sydney College will take place on November 11, 2010.  In the lead-up to this momentous occasion, Hampden-Sydney is being celebrated for its status as "a national treasure with a regional foundation and a global outlook." In line with this theme, the College is bringing in noted individuals to discuss the role of Hampden-Sydney in society. On Thursday, October 14th, one such individual, Dr. Bruce Leslie, came to campus to talk about one of the defining characteristics of H-SC, a liberal arts education.

Dr. Leslie, a professor at the College at Brockport (New York), is a distinguished author and scholar of America's social history.  He is one of the foremost experts on American higher education and the evolution of the liberal arts.  Drawing on his extensive knowledge, Dr. Leslie gave a lecture entitled "There Are Those Who Love It: The American Liberal Arts College & Its Unique Heritage." His talk chronicled the rich history of the liberal arts.

Although the liberal arts are uniquely American, they originated in preexisting European intellectual tradition(s). A liberal arts curriculum can trace its immediate roots to England during the Enlightenment and the development of Protestantism.  Both of these movements caused a revolution in thinking that would influence education in subsequent centuries.  By the 17th and 18th centuries, prominent British intellectuals were taking "leaps of faith," said Dr. Lesilie, "by founding unlikely institutions of higher learning in unlikely places."  Once such "unlikely place" was America.  Interestingly, these institutions were not founded in urban areas of America; rather, they were established on the "frontier," because it afforded them a greater degree of independence, a level of freedom that was found at prominent English universities.  Indeed, American schools like Harvard, Princeton, and even Hampden-Sydney were attempting to replicate the academic excellence of institutions like Oxford and Cambridge.

As Dr. Leslie pointed out, liberal arts education in America blossomed after the American Revolution.  Swept up in an intellectual renaissance, colleges came to be viewed as associations that build character in atmospheres of sound learning.  The Hampden-Sydney Honor Code and Code of Conduct are modern-day descendants of this philosophy. 

This philosophy has survived and thrived because it is versatile; it has evolved by adapting to the challenges of the times.  Above all else, the liberal arts have continued to emphasize community, that is to say, living, learning, and teaching together.  Liberal arts colleges embody this sense of community in many ways -academic family (i.e. close student-faculty relationships), athletics, fraternities, and other student/faculty organizations.  These communities have a proud history of producing well-rounded students who have a broad education and a wide breadth of knowledge.  As Dr. Leslie put it, because of their excellence and prestige, liberal arts schools are a "hidden gem."  It is no wonder that Hampden-Sydney is sometimes called "the best kept secret in the country."

Beginning classes on November 10, 1775, Hampden-Sydney stood on a threshold. The College straddled the line between being one of the last colonial colleges and one of the first American schools.  Some 235 years later, the tenth oldest college in the United States is still going strong.  This venerable institution's storied past heralds a bright future.