Reimagining: Principia College’s Innovative Approach to the Liberal Arts


“Our schools are too often responsible for the colorless, unthinking mass of ‘educated’ humanity about which we hear so much complaint in the business and professional world today. How can mechanical cramming produce intelligent business men and women, inventors, statesmen, orators, or reformers?" (Education at The Principia, pp. 43-44)

PRINCIPIA FOUNDER MARY KIMBALL MORGAN’S WORDS, NOW OVER A CENTURY OLD, REVERBERATE EVER LOUDER TODAY— when technological advancements have foregrounded certain skills as “future-ready” and suppressed interest in wide-ranging, multidisciplinary learning. As interest in job skills grows, graduates are gravitating away from the liberal arts.

These forces are part of a nationwide dynamic causing precipitous drops in enrollment at four-year liberal arts colleges, even forcing many institutions to shutter their doors. It is also an opportunity for Principia to further distinguish itself.

Where some see a threatening landscape, Principia educators are embracing an opportunity to think more broadly about what’s possible— what’s needed—from a liberal arts education. It’s an endeavor known on campus as “reimagining” the curriculum—a seed planted in Principia’s 2020 Strategic Plan that is today bearing fruit, igniting the imagination and tapping the talents of the entire faculty.

The Innovation Opportunity

“Innovation is the ability to see change as an opportunity, not a threat.” 
– Steve Jobs, Apple founder and former CEO


After a quarter-century teaching at Principia College, Political Science Professor and Interim Dean of Academics Dr. Brian Roberts (C’88) has seen his share of change. But navigating today’s unique shifts has called for redefining liberal arts at Principia College and beyond.

Every day I open up a publication and see the same narrative,” Roberts laments. “Lower enrollment is forcing adjustments that are topdown— just eliminating programs wholesale.”

But Principia College sees a different way forward. Under the direction of College President Dr. Daniel Norton, Roberts and the team in the Academic Dean’s Office have engaged and empowered the entire faculty to holistically rethink their academic programs. Unlike other institutions, this group saw opportunity: “It’s a great time, given the rapid developments in society, to be thinking about the composition of our academic offerings,” Roberts says.

He notes, “Reimagining the curriculum is a much more challenging enterprise—to come together as a faculty to rethink the nature of our offerings, to believe in the collaborative process that emphasizes the training and ingenuity of our faculty. We’re making our programs even more forward-looking, multidisciplinary, drawing on the strengths that we have.”

The undertaking is both ambitious and based on a grounded optimism that Principia’s unique strengths will inform a redesigned curriculum to best serve the needs of current and future students.

Shifting to be more relevant to the realities and demands of emerging occupations, new majors and areas of study will be more multidisciplinary, and thus more applicable to a wide field of future professions.


Training a Generation of Innovators

“Since we live in an age of innovation, a practical education must prepare a man for work that does not yet exist and cannot yet be clearly defined.” 
– Peter Drucker, Management consultant and author


“Principia has long been dedicated to the ‘whole-person’ model, which is central to the liberal arts,” explains history professor and Interim Assistant Dean of Academic Services Dr. Peter van Lidth de Jeude (C’04). “What skills are needed to live and function in society? What does a citizen of the world need to succeed? It’s much broader than just technical or vocational education; it is not only supposed to enhance your ability in the job market, it’s also supposed to enhance your life— make you a better, more well-rounded person.”

Like bubble gum chewed free of its flavor, the term “future-readiness” may have been drained of meaning by overuse. In many institutions, a “future-ready” education entails the development of technical skills as applied to high-tech materials and equipment. At others, a thorough understanding of coding languages produces “future-ready” graduates. Principia’s educators are less interested in defining the term than they are in preparing students to define the future themselves.

Legendary Principia computer science professor Dr. Tom Fuller (FS’92) preferred metaphor to define how education can best prepare students for life. “Tom used to say, ‘Life is like an athletic competition you’re preparing for, but you don’t know exactly what event you’ll be competing in,’” recalls van Lidth de Jeude. “‘It might be a race, might be the discus, might be the high jump. If you’re not sure exactly what to prepare for, you want to build a core of athleticism that will allow you to succeed in all of these areas.’”

Dr. van Lidth de Jeude continues, “The liberal arts are in many ways like that—core strengths you can develop that will allow you to learn new skills and be future-proof.”

Principia College seeks to prepare students to participate fully and meaningfully in life after college, whether that be in graduate school, a career, or through other paths of service.

Digital Media and Journalism professor Joan Toohey Wesman makes clear that a liberal arts curriculum and career readiness are not at odds. “When you read what employers are looking for in the world today, it’s not a certain skill set. They’re looking for students who know how to collaborate, how to communicate clearly orally and in writing, and how to think critically. And as the world continues to change and evolve, they will need to be able to adapt along with it.”

“[Education] is not only supposed to enhance your ability in the job market, it’s also supposed to enhance your life— make you a better, more well-rounded person.”
– Dr. Peter van Lidth de Jeude

Redefining ‘Hard Skills’

“Education is not preparation for life. Education is life itself.” 
– John Dewey, Educational reformer


Underlying this enlightened vision of the liberal arts is a unique approach to education itself. Says Roberts, “I’ve always conveyed to my students that my role as a Principia educator is not to teach them what to think but rather how to think— and to think more effectively. I see that across the faculty: challenging students to think more deeply, compassionately, with a sense of civility.”

Or, as van Lidth de Jeude likes to say, “to learn how to learn.” The history professor holds up a smart phone. “All of us have this thing in our pocket. If I need to know when the Battle of Waterloo was, it knows. But I need to know, what’s a good source and what’s not a good source? What are the terms I need? So in my classes, I’ve moved away from a focus on memorizing facts to interpretation, how to make sense of sources, and how to synthesize your own perspective into original material.”

Facing a world where artificial intelligence is upending education— obscuring the authenticity of sources, providing tools for plagiarism, and homogenizing content— these critical thinking skills are all the more vital.

Professor Wesman is particularly passionate about these needs: “We want students to be able to learn on their own, be adaptable, and think critically. And the biggest piece for me in the [Digital Media and Journalism] department is, how to think critically about who’s creating the media, who’s behind it, and what are their motives?”


Principia’s Unique Lens on Education for Innovation

“Education is not an accumulation of facts but an unfoldment of ideas. . . . The pupils of The Principia are taught to think, to reason, to perceive, to act. Whatever study . . . will be conducive to this end, must be made a matter of constant looking to divine guidance on the part of the faculty.”
– Mary Kimball Morgan, Principia founder


Conversations with faculty and administrators about this reimagining process reveal a wellspring of enthusiasm and discovery and a deep commitment to retaining and furthering Principia’s guiding mission.

In Wesman’s words, “As we go through these transitions, we’re asking, ‘What is the role of Christian Science in all this?’ And, ‘What can the values or the worldview of Christian Science bring to this conversation?’ I believe the values that we bring from Christian Science intersect with 21st-century needs for students.”

Dr. Roberts’s baritone voice can barely hide his enthusiasm for what’s to come:

“This institution has come together to design a forward-looking curricular program with a sense of freshness and vitality that improves student experience and meets students’ needs in the future.

“What a wonderful place for Principia to be! It’s rare. I’m grateful to be undertaking this kind of process. It’s incredibly challenging—there’s no road map for this process, but I’ve been so grateful for the adaptability, creativity, and the willingness of the faculty and staff to undertake this enterprise.

“It’s wonderful to know that everyone is operating from the same basis, to see this through a metaphysical lens. That has been a huge benefit as we all listen for direction; the sense of humility and openness of thought is essential. That’s the core of what’s helping us address the challenges and great promise for the future.”