On Grove City College and Fostering a Liberal Arts Culture

It’s a shame when I hear people speak with lackluster tone about their Alma maters.  It’s almost as though college was a place they merely tolerated.  They put their heads down and plowed through to that graduation stage where they were granted the wages for all of their efforts: a diploma.  The classes were easy or boring or frustrating.  They had some friends.  They did some stuff.  It could have been better.  But it was college, and it was just a necessary step toward getting a job.

I get sad for these people.  When I hear about the colleges others attended, I get…sad.  When I see commercials about liberal arts schools offering online education and satellite campuses and career driven education, it just makes me sad.  There is no other word for it.  Across the country, colleges are becoming factories that merely pump out qualified employees.

Allow me to tell a different story.

Grove_City_College_sealI attended Grove City College, a liberal arts school in western Pennsylvania.  My freshman year, both cafeterias were outdated, the dorms were a hundred years old with 15 coats of paint chipping off the walls, the athletics facilities looked like they had suffered severe abuse, and to top it off, it snowed 6 months out of the year.  I was issued cotton gray XXL shirt and shorts (like out of an old-fashioned photo) as practice gear for my soccer team [we all wore XXL–even if your actual size was M, like me].  I had to wear a full suit to every away soccer match.  I used an old hall community bathroom all four years of school.  Our professors actually preferred to use chalkboards.  And classes were really, really, really hard.

And I loved ever minute of it.

Would I have preferred a brand new dorm?  Would I have preferred top of the line practice gear that actually fit?  Would I have preferred my own bathroom?  Maybe.  But Grove City College had something intangible about it. I loved it not despite these quirks.  I loved it because of them.  Grove City College was not a place where I was cattle prodded through the four year program to usher me quickly across the stage and into a real world career.  Grove City College was…life.  With its musty dorms and historic buildings, its sometimes zany professors, its grassy spaces full of students playing, studying, and sharing life together–something about the campus throbbed with life.

College Is about Fostering Culture.

Over the course of my four years at GCC, both cafeterias, the athletic building, both rec centers, and several dorms were fully renovated.  A brand new set of campus apartments were built.  The soccer field was completely reseeded, and new stands, a press box, and dugout style benches were built.  The campus underwent huge improvements during my four years.  However, I think every student on that campus would say they were just as happy without them.

Grove City College recognized something that many undergrad schools have yet to realize: buildings do not a college make.  A successful college recognizes that they are cultivating a culture.  Culture certainly includes buildings and facilities, but culture focuses on the people: the students, the faculty, the staff, and the alumni. The reason the college was special was not because it had high-end housing options or technologically advanced classroom facilities.

Grove City cultivated a cultural zest for life.  College was not merely a place to obtain a degree.  It was a place to live, a place to be shaped, a place to grow.  Professors and students spent time together inside and outside of the classroom enjoying the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom.  Teachers were passionate about their subject matter and challenged students to be dissatisfied with mediocrity.  Students flourished in relationships and activities across the campus.  Rec rooms were full of students playing games, having conversations, and studying together.  Sports teams fostered unity, competition, and excellence. The fine arts theater echoed with music and came alive with acting and performing arts.  The chapel rung with voices joining in song.

College Is Not Career Training.

And yet Grove City graduates emerged from this culture extremely well-qualified for jobs in every field of work.  The leadership of the college recognized that what this world needs is not more colleges that create cookie-cutter employees, but a college that fosters an infectious culture.  The four years at Grove City turned high school kids into maturing young adults with a desire to live, a desire to excel, and a desire to search and grow.  The faculty, staff, and coaches helped students to develop ways of living that effected who we became long after we left campus.

So many liberal arts colleges are spending their money on building flashy buildings, expensive housing options, and over the top athletic facilities, while their culture is dead.  They present themselves as a list of programs leading to successful career jobs.  They offer student-driven educational options. They pretend that online education is as good as life on life interaction with teachers and staff.

What students really need are institutions that invite them into a culture of learning, living, and growth.  This means being about more than the bottom line.  It means caring more about the kind of people being brought to campus than about the buildings being put there.  Grove City understood that education is not simply about transferring information.  It was about developing the whole person created in the image of God–both in body and soul.

It’s funny for me to even speak about Grove City College as an institution, because when I picture college, I see faces.  I see my favorite professors.  I see our distinguished President Jewell.  I see my best friends.  I see my teammates and fraternity brothers.  I see my wife.  When you picture your college, do you see buildings, an online forum, and nice facilities?  Or do you see people?