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A liberal arts education can be a transformative experience, but only if a student is awake to its nascent possibilities. And, being awake to education in this way is becoming increasingly difficult.

Students understand that they are making a major investment in education, often taking out loans that will require years to repay. But this understanding can quickly dissolve in the face of technology and its overwhelming call coming from our pocket, purse or desktop.

Teachers today are competing relentlessly for students’ attention, knowing full-well that without attention, there is no education.

Related: While liberal arts decline in U.S., China and other economic rivals add them

It is not only technology that divides attention. There also are readily available intoxicants — ranging from nicotine to alcohol and marijuana — that make being wide-awake to education additionally challenging.

“It doesn’t take long to connect Tolstoy’s thinking on intoxicants to an over-reliance on technology. The moment a student begins feeling uncomfortable, he or she can pull out a phone and become stupefied.”

Recently, one of my students proposed an independent study on the prospects and possibilities of substance-free housing on college campuses. As can happen at a liberal arts college, our investigation of substance-free housing led us to take a fortuitous detour through Leo Tolstoy’s 1890 essay “Why Do Men Stupefy Themselves?”

Tolstoy makes the case that we use intoxicants as a way of drowning out the voice of conscience that is warning us that we are not living as we should. Instead of heeding this voice — and thus putting us at risk of realizing that we must change our lives — we have a smoke, or a drink.

Because smoking was wholly socially acceptable at the time Tolstoy was writing, anyone could immediately silence the twinge of conscience with the strike of a match.

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It doesn’t take long to connect Tolstoy’s thinking on intoxicants to an over-reliance on technology. The moment a student begins feeling uncomfortable, he or she can pull out a phone and become stupefied.

Remember, this generation of college students was just being born when the Columbine shooting occurred, they were not even in kindergarten on 9/11, and the great recession was in the air at about the time they began seriously considering their futures.

Such events have cast a shadow over their lives, and education has done almost nothing to help them. If Tolstoy is right to believe that we stupefy ourselves to avoid contending with difficult questions and issues, is it a surprise that stupefaction is as prevalent as it is?

But I see not only a problem but also an opportunity. The liberal arts are not expensive self-help, and most professors are not trained therapists. But, study of the liberal arts brings us into contact with powerful examples of men and women who contended with life’s greatest difficulties — war, violence, fear, hopelessness, economic downturns — and brought back from those struggles riches that allow us to see our lives anew.

Instead of shrinking from the difficulties our students bring with them to college, we should trust that our curriculum — the liberal arts curriculum — is uniquely positioned to teach them how to live with those difficulties.

Faculty must understand the fears shared by students and parents, and we should know that they are counting on us to provide them with an education that will offer a guarantee of future success. As important, we should be compassionate, not derisive, about students’ escaping to their phones instead of facing the world.

Economic pressures are prevalent. We must counter that fear by leveraging fully our small size, which makes possible close relationships with advisors and professors. Together we can create individualized employment plans that involve internships, networking with alumni, and support from the full college community.

The lure of stupefaction through technology and substances is powerful,  and its roots — if Tolstoy is correct — are not trivial. Students cannot connect with the real resources of the liberal arts curriculum until they bring their attention to study, but they will not bring their attention to study unless they believe that doing so will matter.

Responding to stupefaction needs to be much more of a priority at liberal arts colleges, and we must devote ample resources toward addressing the challenge.

This is a tough sell. Some of the most significant outcomes of an education are almost impossible to predict.  Our world wants guarantees, so it can be hard to trust a liberal arts education. But the growth a student makes from her first semester — especially if someone is able to break through the drive to stupefaction — is often so expansive it overwhelms what she envisioned for her education.

This story about higher education and the liberal arts was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

Jeff Frank is an assistant professor of education at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York.

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