By Christopher Thrall
“My life is shaped by the idea that higher education is the great equalizer and can produce citizens who are the glue of our society.”
– Dr. Les Purce, president of Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington
Seventy years ago, Les Purce’s great-uncle helped build a school in poor, racially segregated Virginia. For the educator, this helped define the essential role that education plays in developing a sense of community. His grandmother became a schoolteacher at 16, tutoring her children and writing letters for the illiterate population of Pocatello, Idaho.
On Wednesday, Nov. 3, the first of the Next University Lecture Series was held in U of A Augustana Campus’ chapel. More than 50 people—including faculty, students and community members—gathered to hear Purce speak about public liberal-arts education.
“Public policy makers demand more accountability, efficiency and performance measures of public institutions,” Purce declared. With a drive for more degrees in technology and engineering fields, the value of a liberal arts education is under attack. As a participant in COPLAC—the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges, of which Augustana Campus is a member—for the past 20 years, Purce has been on the front lines. Despite statistics that show a liberal arts degree is a good investment, he says that we must demonstrate its importance for the health of our democracy and our economic well-being.
In his conversations with CEOs, Purce noted that 90% of them tended to hold (private) liberal arts degrees. However, it is not Evergreen’s intention to graduate citizens who think that an increase in personal income is their only goal: equally important are a deep commitment and connectedness to the society in which we are all partners, the solutions to global warming and genocide, narrowing the growing divide between poor and wealthy, and creating a world community that recognizes the intrinsic importance of every human being.
Purce broke off his lecture to pick up his guitar and perform a few songs, using each to illustrate the benefits of an open mind. “Students leave campus in love with learning and life-long engagement,” he continued; “not only are they engaged in the classroom, but also in the promise that exists in the social environment around them.”
Evergreen has no set curricula, courses or grades. Professors develop interdisciplinary courses together in order to guide students through real world problems or issues. Students enrol in one or two classes per year, and must work together in order to succeed. A progress report follows their achievements, much like the employee reviews that most graduates will face in their professional careers.
“Evergreen State College has long been thought of as a place that’s very different and apart from education in the traditional sense,” Purce explained before his lecture. “At one point, it might have been thought of as a maverick in some ways. Of course, now everyone’s trying to figure out how to do learning communities and interdisciplinary education effectively. The times have really caught up with the college, and I think that’s cool.”
Augustana sociology professor Tara Milbrandt said in response to Purce’s lecture: “What I found wonderful is that his talk focused on the education of the whole person,” she said, referring to Augustana’s own objective as well. “I admire that this education is not only a private benefit to the student, but also that the solutions to these larger problems that they discuss—developed in co-operation with different perspectives—will benefit all of society as well.”