Our Approach to Liberal Arts Education

January 15, 2020

What sets W&L apart among the nation’s colleges and universities? We have a long-standing commitment to a particular type of liberal arts education that is captured beautifully by our mission statement:

“Washington and Lee University provides a liberal arts education that develops students’ capacity to think freely, critically, and humanely, and to conduct themselves with honor, integrity, and civility. Graduates will be prepared for lifelong learning, personal achievement, responsible leadership, service to others, and engaged citizenship in a global and diverse society.”

Professional success is an important part of what we aim to make possible for our alumni. But it is only a part. We cultivate intellectual habits and skills, and core character traits, in preparation for lives of meaning and consequence.

How do we do it?

We are a deliberately small, residential, and diverse community.

Each year we welcome 470 undergraduates and 120 law students from nearly 50 states and more than 20 countries. They live, work, and play together and are taught and mentored by professors, coaches, and staff who know and care for them personally.

Our curriculum is both traditional and innovative.

The liberal arts help us understand ourselves and the natural world. We complement the humanities and sciences with our undergraduate school of commerce, economics, and politics and a nationally recognized school of law. We offer journalism and engineering, centers for the study of ethics and entrepreneurship, and an emphasis on international education. W&L’s distinctive curriculum teaches students to develop creative solutions to complex problems, and prepares our alumni to make significant contributions to their communities.

We trust our students and give them great responsibility.

Student self-governance is foundational at Washington and Lee. The Honor System asks all students to conduct themselves in a manner worthy of the community’s trust. Such universal trustworthiness is reinforced by the civility of the Speaking Tradition. W&L is an extended family, which our students don’t want to leave and to which our alumni love to return.

How do we measure success?

We are justifiably proud that 96% of our graduates are employed or are pursuing further education within nine months of commencement. But neither their starting salaries, nor any test administered at graduation, could tell us how well we have accomplished our mission.

The proof lies in the lives of our alumni.

The Five-Star Generals who return to campus each fall, more than 50 years after receiving their diplomas, embody the lifelong impact of Washington and Lee. Their achievements, leadership, service, and citizenship are the true measure of our educational efforts. The tremendous support we receive from alumni of all ages, who have made the last two years the best in the history of the Annual Fund, reflects both their profound gratitude for everything they received at W&L and their commitment to ensuring it remains available for the rising generation.

Young people of this generation want to be Generals too.

We typically admit fewer than one-in-five applicants for spots in the first-year class. Students choose Washington and Lee because of the things that set us apart: our Honor System, innovative liberal arts education, special culture, and highly accomplished alumni community.

W&L is not merely one good university among others. We are proudly distinctive, advancing a noble mission to the best of our ability. What we do here matters. But it is also expensive. Why does it cost so much? Is it a good value? Who has access to it and how can they afford it? I look forward to tackling these important questions and others in future installments of this series.