Useful Innovation: The Next Great Challenge for Liberal Arts Colleges

It's happening all around us, and the higher education community needs to pay attention. More and more, young people today are looking to entrepreneurial opportunities as the way of advancing the common good. Whether starting an innovative non-profit or a socially conscious business, these emerging leaders are motivated to make a difference with their lives.

I've seen it in my own community just north of Boston. Gordon College alum Sam Winslow, for example, recently founded Thirst Footwear, which will fund new wells in sub-Saharan Africa through every shoe purchase. Then there's the Accessible Icon Project -- a collaboration between faculty members Brian Glenney and Tim Ferguson-Sauder, current Gordon students, Cambridge artist Sarah Hendron, and the disability advocacy group Triangle -- which is working to change public perceptions of disability through a more active, engaged visual representation of the "Handicap Symbol." Gordon College itself has recently partnered with Praxis Labs, an organization that supports the development of new social enterprises through mentoring and funding opportunities.

An entrepreneurial spirit is thriving among the next generation. Yet in order to turn their ambition into action, today's students will need a solid foundation that prepares them for the unique challenges and opportunities of entrepreneurship. This is where a strong liberal arts education can give young entrepreneurs a significant advantage. We teach students to reason across disciplines and cultures, from perspectives familiar and foreign. By instilling in students this habit of thinking holistically -- that is, being able to synthesize disparate ideas or elements into a creative, unified solution -- the liberal arts provide a flexible framework for entrepreneurial enterprise. Holistic learning sets the table for useful innovation; entrepreneurship is the practical application of these great ideas.

It's possible, however, for liberal arts colleges to do wrong by the next generation. Higher education can be all theory, no practice. Students can learn to reason with clarity and discover their academic passions, but never learn what it means to put those passions to work. A defining feature of the truly transformative college experience is the exploration of vocation -- what theologian Frederick Buechner described as "where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet" -- within the formative conversations of the liberal arts.

This is, at its core, an issue of stewardship. We become good stewards of the liberal arts -- as educators, as students -- when we become sensitive to how that education can benefit those around us. At Gordon, we've always held a firm commitment to facilitating the connection between personal passion and lifelong vocation. For a growing number of students, this vocation is working itself out as a call to entrepreneurship.

It's in this spirit that we've recently launched our new Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership (CEL). The Center will serve not only to educate Gordon students about the business of entrepreneurship, it will also be the hub for a range of opportunities in which students will generate innovative solutions to real-world challenges. Itself the practical application of a great idea, the CEL is the brainchild of Gordon College trustee and successful entrepreneur Joe Krivickas, CEO of SmartBear. Joe's own passions for both higher education and entrepreneurial leadership have strengthened and refined the Center's purpose as a catalyst for ingenuity. Far from being an academic exercise, the CEL at Gordon will give our students practical, meaningful outlets for the holistic thinking skills they acquire here.

This, then, is the challenge for liberal arts colleges: to realize that we're already on the leading edge of entrepreneurial innovation. By nature of our educational framework, we are preparing our students to solve the next great puzzles of our global society. Let us now ensure that they also graduate prepared to make these solutions useful, marketable, and viable--because it's at this juncture of holistic thinking and entrepreneurial ethos that the common good will thrive in this generation.