2 September 2011 Conversation (Chetkovitch, Joseph, Ryan, Schulman)

Context, why this topic now?

  1. Liberal arts in 21st century raised as possible conversation topic for BOT in October.
  2. Not a good thing if faculty senses it's late in coming to the conversation.
  3. Better a situation in which we can say "Indeed, this has been a topic we have been talking about."
  4. If the "graduatification" of Mills was JH legacy, what will AD legacy be? Could it be a re-dedication of college to undergraduate education (not at expense of graduate, but a renewed focus)?

OK, so what "is" liberal arts?

  1. One might, perhaps, not expect consensus.
  2. It is a question to which colleges devote a large amount of energy — trying to define and specify — but maybe it is an area of "necessary ambiguity."
  3. One notices that it's often defined more in terms of what it is not.
    1. One version of liberal arts is antagonism toward the applied.
  4. One ought to think not just in terms of the intra-institutional conversation, but also consider the question of what is valued externally. Consider the possibly "inconvenient fact" that we might find that some of the things we most value internally might not really be all that valued externally.
  5. Consider the legend of Steve Jobs' stumbling into a calligraphy class at Reed College as inspiration for expanding the Macintosh's capacity to display multiple fonts1.

Substantive Definitions

  1. How do you teach people broadly enough that they can avoid the kinds of errors that come from overly narrow conceptions of the world, problems, and solutions?
  2. Relatedly, can we talk about the utility of breadth of knowledge/skill/awareness for affirmative innovation, creativity, success?
    1. How to connect the ideas of knowledge-base and skill set? Often in conversations like this it seems focus is on one or the other but not both. Is there a way to bring them together?
    2. Another way to ask question: what is our real core competence? What are we good at?

Values, Ideology, World View, Cultural Positions

  1. So much conversation about liberal arts is backward looking. We lament that it is gone, that it used to be better, that the college education I got was somehow more elevated, pure, useful. We might note the self-serving bias aspect of such thinking.
  2. Stanford person once defined liberal arts as capacity to entertain self, others, and an idea.
    1. Somewhat dated and elitist. Still perhaps true in some strata of higher education but probably not appropriate to ours.

Framing Question in Terms of Social Function

  1. What social functions does a liberal arts college fulfill? What is our bargain with society? What sorts of moral responsibility, fiduciary responsibility do we have vis a vis our non-profit status, our contractual relationship with those who enroll or who send their children to us?
    1. With whom do we compete and over what?
    2. We have reached the point where we have to take the for-profit higher education "movement" seriously. There is a progressive privatization of many functions of the college/university; which ones are problematic and why?
    3. Some years ago PEW2 funded some projects the essence of which was to encourage colleges, and especially faculty, to realize that things are changing and they'd need to get with the program.

Moral, ethical, fiduciary obligations of a liberal arts college

  1. Entrusted by virtue of our non-profit status to use resources to improve human capital?
  2. Entrusted to foster transformation in young people at a very important stage in life
  3. Given opportunity to engage in human potential for self-transformation — needs to be taken seriously
  4. Parents and students trust us to make them the best they can be and to keep them safe while doing it

Social Components of Education

  1. What do students get at a four year residential college that is different from what they might get elsewhere?
    1. One part is "social"
    2. But often as currently conceptualized that is put in opposition to the academic (e.g., through funding transferred to student life departments).
    3. But IS social just non-academic. Don't think so.
    4. Can think about design of academic program that focuses on the social aspects of learning. Learning as something people do together (and note that this is not necessarily the same thing as "group work"). A class or seminar is a fundamentally social experience. So too, perhaps, is a major.
  2. So, maybe faculty need to think about how to do this aspect right and not just turn back on it and consign it to student life

The Transformation of Young People

  1. (fully cognizant of changing demographics, need to think about what works and doesn't for the many folks who go to college NOT on this conventional path — but perhaps don't get totally distracted by the variety)
  2. What we are saying is that we need to think about how to really take advantage of the developmental window represented by the 18-22 time frame.
  3. At the same time, how do you pay attention to this "social" aspect of college without it appearing from the outside to be saying that college is about partying?
  4. What do we know from research about cognitive and social development that should guide how we work with people in this amazingly fertile developmental window?
  5. This is asking the question: how do you most effectively guide/assist/promote transformation from 18 year old malleable post-adolescent to 22 year old young adult.
  6. Recognize it's about emotional growth as well as cognitive and intellectual
  7. So, if we are imagining that the above is connected to a liberal arts education, what are we thinking would be different or missing in an engineering curriculum or school?
  8. Of course, one would expect that there are going to be analogous things in such programs because these are basics and fundamentally important no matter where your trajectory points.

Identifying the Liberal Arts Difference

  1. Perhaps much that gets mapped onto liberal arts is common to higher education in general (or at least conventional college/university approaches)
    1. BUT one does notice an absence in folks educated exclusively in the realm of, say, engineering.
    2. WHAT? Interestingly, it is a tendency for folks in possession of fantastically intense analytic tools to be blind to the fact that things might be "more complicated than that" — an example being the inability of a physicist to understand how a political party might nominate someone who has no chance to win an election. A person might have a big "that just does not compute" zone.
    3. So, part of our question about designing liberal arts for the 21st century would be "how to train folks so as to avoid 'over-simplification by hyper-expertise.'"
    4. But let's not forget that there IS a lot of weak, silly stuff produced by social sciences and humanities (and that efforts to root it out are probably counter-productive)

Liberal arts in the 21st Century as an Empirical Question

  1. Map backwards from the problems humanity likely to face in 21st century to the skill sets, knowledge bases, and inclinations necessary to successfully deal with them.
  2. Use our wisdom and current tools to project and imagine the human capital infrastructure future requires.
  3. Empirical knowledge about what matters at particular stages of intellectual/cogntive/personal development (first and foremost 18-22, but also at other stages of transformation)
  1. Skills and knowledge that actually help one to be broad-minded enough to avoid mistakes born of narrowness
    1. We, faculty etc., need to think hard about what skills ARE actually going to be required going forward.
    2. For too long we've sort of waved our hands at this.
    3. Plus we need to think about how this stuff relates to what we WANT to be doing as teachers.
    4. AND what is actually valued out there.
      1. We cannot in good conscience keep teaching folks things that we don't actually know whether the world wants or needs them to know.
  2. To the question of what problems the 21st century will serve up we have to add what sorts of careers are we sending folks off into. Or rather, what kind of career trajectories.
    1. One known fact : their careers will be multiple and changing. We need to teach people in a manner that equips them for doing something and for changing what they are doing. A skill set that includes changing skills sets.
    2. And we know that some would just say, "well, the liberal arts ARE that skill set."
    3. But we need to unpack that a bit — what and how — what is it about liberal arts and how does it accomplish this. Has to be more than "I don't know how to do anything so I can learn to do anything."
    4. There is a risk that we have for a long time gotten away with being very vague on this point — not really specifying what we do.

Higher Education, Mobility, and Social Class

  1. Some hold that all that college does is reproduce inequality
    1. THUS much of what we are talking about here doesn't matter
    2. But it might be that this is true at elite institutions, but decidedly not true at institutions like ours that are in the business of social mobility.
    3. But we need to think carefully about some macro issues
      1. If the world into which the next generation of our students graduates is going to be one in which there is not much social mobility — a very flat trajectory, then what is our role?
        1. If there is little net mobility, are we doing anything more than preventing backsliding?
        2. Is our basic mission the production of (lower or middle) middle class citizens?
        3. Or, if there's little net mobility are we just participating in a zero-sum game of circulation of elites and even then only at the margin?
        4. In any case, point is we need to be aware that there is a context in which all this is happening
      2. Related — where do we stand with respect to an eroding public education alternative?
      3. But is there a danger in thinking about this context of turning the entire discussion into one of labor markets and such? Not likely to garner much participation from those allergic to such topcis.

Alternative Models?

Another model would be a variation on the one implied by this — to provide supportive and stimulating and protective environment for that developmental stage, but maybe one that is not so insular and packaged. We are very much caught up in the idea that we can only do what we do by delivering the goods in course-sized packages. But maybe we have something to offer that would look a little different.

  1. Consider, for example, a student who arrives and is not, in a sense, ready to go full tilt absorbing transformative experiences via that conventional course-based approach.
  2. Some might benefit from something less insulated from real world
  3. (one thinks here too of countries that have a national service requirement before university)
  4. Perhaps one could design liberal arts to include more real world from the get go. Service or work experience that is not tacked on at the edges (a quarter credit for a service learning add-on or a summer internship) but more central to and alongside curriculum.
  5. Observation: so much growth can happen in projects. One recognizes how little the course substance (getting through the material) matters sometimes. When one needs that material to solve real problems, however, then it makes sense, matters, is learned, etc.
  6. So, point is to consider that we are overly-tied to simple 40 courses equals an education model.


Wadhwa, Vivek. 2011. "Engineering vs. Liberal Arts: Who’s Right—Bill or Steve?" [http://techcrunch.com/2011/03/21/engineering-vs-liberal-arts-who%E2%80%99s-right%E2%80%94bill-or-steve/]
New York Times. 2011. "Career Counselor: Bill Gates or Steve Jobs?" [http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2011/03/20/career-counselor-bill-gates-or-steve-jobs?src=tw]