Liz Coleman's call to reinvent liberal arts education
The story begins in the late '90s. I was invited to meet with leading educators from the newly free Eastern Europe and Russia. They were trying to figure out how to rebuild their universities. Since education under the Soviet Union was essentially propaganda serving the purposes of a state ideology, they appreciated that it would take wholesale transformations if they were to provide an education worthy of free men and women. Given this rare opportunity to start fresh, they chose liberal arts as the most compelling model because of its historic commitment to furthering its students' broadest intellectual, and deepest ethical potential.
Having made that decision they came to the United States, home of liberal arts education, to talk with some of us most closely identified with that kind of education. They spoke with a passion, an urgency, an intellectual conviction that, for me, was a voice I had not heard in decades, a dream long forgotten. For, in truth, we had moved light years from the passions that animated them. But for me, unlike them, in my world, the slate was not clean, and what was written on it was not encouraging.
In truth, liberal arts education no longer exists -- at least genuine liberal arts education -- in this country. We have professionalized liberal arts to the point where they no longer provide the breadth of application and the enhanced capacity for civic engagement that is their signature. Over the past century the expert has dethroned the educated generalist to become the sole model of intellectual accomplishment. (Applause)
Expertise has for sure had its moments. But the price of its dominance is enormous. Subject matters are broken up into smaller and smaller pieces, with increasing emphasis on the technical and the obscure. We have even managed to make the study of literature arcane. You may think you know what is going on in that Jane Austen novel -- that is, until your first encounter with postmodern deconstructionism.
The progression of today's college student is to jettison every interest except one. And within that one, to continually narrow the focus, learning more and more about less and less; this, despite the evidence all around us of the interconnectedness of things. Lest you think I exaggerate, here are the beginnings of the A-B-Cs of anthropology. As one moves up the ladder, values other than technical competence are viewed with increasing suspicion. Questions such as, "What kind of a world are we making? What kind of a world should we be making? What kind of a world can we be making?" are treated with more and more skepticism, and move off the table.
In so doing, the guardians of secular democracy in effect yield the connection between education and values to fundamentalists, who, you can be sure, have no compunctions about using education to further their values: the absolutes of a theocracy. Meanwhile, the values and voices of democracy are silent. Either we have lost touch with those values or, no better, believe they need not or cannot be taught. This aversion to social values may seem at odds with the explosion of community service programs. But despite the attention paid to these efforts, they remain emphatically extracurricular. In effect, civic-mindedness is treated as outside the realm of what purports to be serious thinking and adult purposes. Simply put, when the impulse is to change the world, the academy is more likely to engender a learned helplessness than to create a sense of empowerment.
This brew -- oversimplification of civic engagement, idealization of the expert, fragmentation of knowledge, emphasis on technical mastery, neutrality as a condition of academic integrity -- is toxic when it comes to pursuing the vital connections between education and the public good, between intellectual integrity and human freedom, which were at the heart -- (Applause) -- of the challenge posed to and by my European colleagues. When the astronomical distance between the realities of the academy and the visionary intensity of this challenge were more than enough, I can assure you, to give one pause, what was happening outside higher education made backing off unthinkable.
Whether it was threats to the environment, inequities in the distribution of wealth, lack of a sane policy or a sustainable policy with respect to the continuing uses of energy, we were in desperate straits. And that was only the beginning. The corrupting of our political life had become a living nightmare; nothing was exempt -- separation of powers, civil liberties, the rule of law, the relationship of church and state. Accompanied by a squandering of the nation's material wealth that defied credulity. A harrowing predilection for the uses of force had become commonplace, with an equal distaste for the alternative forms of influence. At the same time, all of our firepower was impotent when it came to halting or even stemming the slaughter in Rwanda, Darfur, Myanmar.
Our public education, once a model for the world, has become most noteworthy for its failures. Mastery of basic skills and a bare minimum of cultural literacy eludes vast numbers of our students. Despite having a research establishment that is the envy of the world, more than half of the American public don't believe in evolution. And don't press your luck about how much those who do believe in it actually understand it.
Incredibly, this nation, with all its material, intellectual and spiritual resources, seems utterly helpless to reverse the freefall in any of these areas. Equally startling, from my point of view, is the fact that no one was drawing any connections between what is happening to the body politic, and what is happening in our leading educational institutions. We may be at the top of the list when it comes to influencing access to personal wealth. We are not even on the list when it comes to our responsibility for the health of this democracy. We are playing with fire. You can be sure Jefferson knew what he was talking about when he said, "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was, and never will be." (Applause)
On a more personal note, this betrayal of our principles, our decency, our hope, made it impossible for me to avoid the question, "What will I say, years from now, when people ask, 'Where were you?'" As president of a leading liberal arts college, famous for its innovative history, there were no excuses. So the conversation began at Bennington. Knowing that if we were to regain the integrity of liberal education, it would take radical rethinking of basic assumptions, beginning with our priorities. Enhancing the public good becomes a primary objective. The accomplishment of civic virtue is tied to the uses of intellect and imagination at their most challenging.
Our ways of approaching agency and authority turn inside out to reflect the reality that no one has the answers to the challenges facing citizens in this century, and everyone has the responsibility for trying and participating in finding them. Bennington would continue to teach the arts and sciences as areas of immersion that acknowledge differences in personal and professional objectives. But the balances redressed, our shared purposes assume an equal if not greater importance.
When the design emerged it was surprisingly simple and straightforward. The idea is to make the political-social challenges themselves -- from health and education to the uses of force -- the organizers of the curriculum. They would assume the commanding role of traditional disciplines. But structures designed to connect, rather than divide mutually dependent circles, rather than isolating triangles. And the point is not to treat these topics as topics of study, but as frameworks of action. The challenge: to figure out what it will take to actually do something that makes a significant and sustainable difference.
Contrary to widely held assumptions, an emphasis on action provides a special urgency to thinking. The importance of coming to grips with values like justice, equity, truth, becomes increasingly evident as students discover that interest alone cannot tell them what they need to know when the issue is rethinking education, our approach to health, or strategies for achieving an economics of equity. The value of the past also comes alive; it provides a lot of company. You are not the first to try to figure this out, just as you are unlikely to be the last. Even more valuable, history provides a laboratory in which we see played out the actual, as well as the intended consequences of ideas.
In the language of my students, "Deep thought matters when you're contemplating what to do about things that matter." A new liberal arts that can support this action-oriented curriculum has begun to emerge. Rhetoric, the art of organizing the world of words to maximum effect. Design, the art of organizing the world of things. Mediation and improvisation also assume a special place in this new pantheon. Quantitative reasoning attains its proper position at the heart of what it takes to manage change where measurement is crucial. As is a capacity to discriminate systematically between what is at the core and what is at the periphery.
And when making connections is of the essence, the power of technology emerges with special intensity. But so does the importance of content. The more powerful our reach, the more important the question "About what?" When improvisation, resourcefulness, imagination are key, artists, at long last, take their place at the table, when strategies of action are in the process of being designed. In this dramatically expanded ideal of a liberal arts education where the continuum of thought and action is its life's blood, knowledge honed outside the academy becomes essential. Social activists, business leaders, lawyers, politicians, professionals will join the faculty as active and ongoing participants in this wedding of liberal education to the advancement of the public good. Students, in turn, continuously move outside the classroom to engage the world directly.
And of course, this new wine needs new bottles if we are to capture the liveliness and dynamism of this idea. The most important discovery we made in our focus on public action was to appreciate that the hard choices are not between good and evil, but between competing goods. This discovery is transforming. It undercuts self-righteousness, radically alters the tone and character of controversy, and enriches dramatically the possibilities for finding common ground. Ideology, zealotry, unsubstantiated opinions simply won't do. This is a political education, to be sure. But it is a politics of principle, not of partisanship. So the challenge for Bennington is to do it.
On the cover of Bennington's 2008 holiday card is the architect's sketch of a building opening in 2010 that is to be a center for the advancement of public action. The center will embody and sustain this new educational commitment. Think of it as a kind of secular church. The words on the card describe what will happen inside. We intend to turn the intellectual and imaginative power, passion and boldness of our students, faculty and staff to developing strategies for acting on the critical challenges of our time.
So we are doing our job. While these past weeks have been a time of national exhilaration in this country, it would be tragic if you thought this meant your job was done. The glacial silence we have experienced in the face of the shredding of the constitution, the unraveling of our public institutions, the deterioration of our infrastructure is not limited to the universities. We the people have become inured to our own irrelevance when it comes to doing anything significant about anything that matters concerning governance, beyond waiting another four years. We persist also in being sidelined by the idea of the expert as the only one capable of coming up with answers, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
The problem is there is no such thing as a viable democracy made up of experts, zealots, politicians and spectators. (Applause) People will continue and should continue to learn everything there is to know about something or other. We actually do it all the time. And there will be and should be those who spend a lifetime pursuing a very highly defined area of inquiry. But this single-mindedness will not yield the flexibilities of mind, the multiplicity of perspectives, the capacities for collaboration and innovation this country needs. That is where you come in. What is certain is that the individual talent exhibited in such abundance here, needs to turn its attention to that collaborative, messy, frustrating, contentious and impossible world of politics and public policy. President Obama and his team simply cannot do it alone.
If the question of where to start seems overwhelming you are at the beginning, not the end of this adventure. Being overwhelmed is the first step if you are serious about trying to get at things that really matter, on a scale that makes a difference. So what do you do when you feel overwhelmed? Well, you have two things. You have a mind. And you have other people. Start with those, and change the world.
Bennington president Liz Coleman delivers a call-to-arms for radical reform in higher education. Bucking the trend to push students toward increasingly narrow areas of study, she proposes a truly cross-disciplinary education -- one that dynamically combines all areas of study to address the great problems of our day.
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