Remaking Higher Education for the 21st Century
Washington DC Mills Club, 26 April 2015

If Steve Jobs was right when he said “It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing,” why do we see so little innovation in places where liberal arts has the home field advantage? Not change for its own sake, but new solutions to new problems. Are today's colleges perhaps too recognizable to those of us who graduated 10, 20, or 50 years ago? A decade and a half into the 21st century, are we sometimes too true to our 19th century origins? Do we too often take too long to change too little? Can the "new" be more than a digital remake of the old? Can educational innovation originate inside the academy?

These questions are especially germane today because contemporary higher education faces many serious challenges and because there is an army of entrepreneurs out there who want "disrupt" it by developing the "killer app" that will do to college what Apple did to the record industry and Amazon did to bookstores.

In this talk I will preview a course, "Disruptive Innovation as a Liberal Art," I am preparing for teaching at Mills. The course will be a "hands on" introduction to design thinking in the context of higher education. I'll describe my plans for the course and, hopefully, elicit ideas from you by posing this question: if the small liberal arts college did not exist, how could it be the disruptive innovation we are looking for?

Greetings. Good afternoon and thank you so much for coming out on this beautiful spring day (rain, you see, is a beautiful site to a California resident). Greetings from the golden state of California and all your sisters and brothers in Oakland.

I recently gave a talk to admitted students and their families in Pasadena, California. I explained that there are two very special moments for me as a teacher and then I described what it's like at graduation when I meet the parents and we look at one another and share a knowing smile because we both know what transformation the years at Mills have accomplished. And then, after a bit of advice about choosing colleges and such I ask "don't you want to know what the other moment is?" And then I say that it's the moment in August when I get to welcome them to Mills. Well, I have to admit to a third moment in a professor's life that's equally special and that's occasions like this when I get to meet you and get a sense of where those graduates go after they leave because really that's what it's all about.

Just as an aside, that reminds me of one of the scarier aspects of my job too. In just two years we will enroll our first students who were born in this century - true citizens of the 21st century. My day job is to figure out how to educate them for life in the rest of that 21st century. How can I have any idea?


Just look at what happened during their childhood. How am I supposed to know what and how to teach them so that when they are sitting where you are in, say, 2045, they'll be thinking "it sure is a good thing I went to Mills College back in the twenty teens." This is actually something that keeps me up at night. It's a genuinely hard problem. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Third Talk in a Trilogy.This is actually the third talk on the future of liberal arts that I've given to Mills audiences over the past two years.

Before we go any further I should confess that I am being a little sloppy about terms - many folks would carefully distinguish "THE liberal arts" from "liberal education" from "liberal arts education" from "liberal arts colleges." Especially with this audience I feel like I can get away with a vague formulation along the lines of "you know, the kind of thing we do at Mills."

I am motivated by a few things. One is I think it's a pretty good idea, this liberal arts college thing. It's not the only way to get an education, but it's basically sound and it's something I feel good about devoting my life to. But another reason is that we, higher education in general and small liberal arts colleges in particular, are in a bit of a tough spot these days.


Challenges. We face at least four distinct challenges.

The first and perhaps biggest challenge we face is that we cost too much. It's not just about feeling uncomfortable about that fact, it's basic economics: there just are not enough families out there who can afford even our discounted tuition. Not just Mills - a whole big slice of the small college scene. This challenge is compounded by the fact that more people than ever need and expect a college education and the expansion of that population is demographically in the direction of families who cannot afford the price.

And then there is politics: We don't mean to be elite but in effect we are. And that draws fire from both the left and the right. One of the most common things I hear from Mills students is "I could not ever have imagined I would get to go to Mills." That's a delight to hear, but it tells us a lot about the world we are in. Delightfully surprising more and more students each year like that is not a sustainable business model.

Another thing is the fact that there is an armada of entrepreneurs out there eager to tap into the flow of resources from families and students into the higher education market. They are smart, motivated, and very well financed and they want to do to higher education what Apple did to records and Amazon did to bookstores.

And finally, there are folks within higher education, in think tanks and big foundations who have ideas about where higher education should go that are not completely resonant with how we think about education in the liberal arts college context.

This brings to mind something attributed to Erasmus:


A fronte praecipitium a tergo lupi. It translates as "a precipice in front, wolves behind." There ARE days when that's what it feels like, but in my cheerier moments I prefer Benjamin Franklin:


In that spirit of optimism, I've spent the last few years thinking a lot about where small liberal arts colleges might be headed. Should be headed. Could be headed.


In talk #1 I argued that just because OUR liberal arts education proved useful, we should not think the best education for tomorrow is the one we had yesterday.

I argued for a balance between an approach that is fundamentally conservative in its certainty that the education we GOT is the education we should GIVE - I called this the urge to "tell her what she missed" style of educating - and one that's fundamentally reckless in preparing students only for the next corporate fad.

I took as my model of what we SHOULD be doing the professors who assigned Baldwin, Carson, Fanon, and Friedan to the class of 1963, helping to launch students of that era into a world that would be changed by civil rights, women's, and environmental movements. At its best, our liberal arts education let us major in the 20th century. Our present task, I suggested, is to figure out what it would mean to major IN the 21st century, to study (for) it before it happens. What should we teach the students who are going to run this century?

In talk #2 I paraphrased Voltaire's question about God asking "if small liberal arts colleges (SLACs) did not already exist, would anyone invent them?" My answer was "probably not" but this got me thinking about how we can iterate on the received model to create what I call "SLAC21." Could we formulate an exciting enough model that we could imagine a kickstarter campaign for the next new thing in higher education - could the new small liberal arts college be one of the disruptions higher education is looking for?

That was last October. A lot has happened in six months in higher education that can impact what SLACs are doing.

  • Obama pushes free community college
  • Starbucks and ASU,
  • Wisconsin implodes
  • Minerva, a global liberal arts college for 10+10 is launched
  • MOOCs have come and gone and come and gone and come again
  • ASU just last week announced an online First Year Program for under $6k
  • The Chronicle of Higher Education just told us the other day that Entrepreneurship is the new bandwagon

Higher Ed these days is a fast moving target. What should I talk about in DC in April?


An event in my own life is relevant at this point.

For the past year I've been on leave working at an "educational startup" at USC, the University of Southern California, called the Iovine Young Academy for Arts, Technology and the Business of Innovation. What we teach is something that comes under the broad umbrella of "innovation, design thinking, entrepreneurial spirit" and so on. Just as I'm a little cavalier about "liberal arts" I'm going to lump all of these under the heading innovation in this talk. Over the last 9 months I've given workshops on public speaking, lockpicking, team collaboration, programming Arduino micro-controllers, building spatial data into web apps, ethnographic methods, and how to build a computer numerical controlled mill from scratch. I don't have an office. I work in this space called the Garage. I don't even have my course. I'm paid about half of what I make at Mills. But it was the most exciting year of teaching ever for me.


Could I bring something like this back to Mills?!?! Now, Mills does not have the resources that USC has. And it's not exactly liberal arts in the usual sense so I was a little nervous. What if the alumnae rose up and took me down?! But what better than teaching the HOW of some of the stuff I'd been preaching about for the last two years? Why not learn about how one might "apply" some of the ideas around design thinking, innovation, startup culture and so on to higher education, and especially liberal arts colleges. And so I proposed an experimental course on innovation in/of higher education. But as I worked on it, I realized that the ideas themselves were worth importing into the Mills curriculum - that, actually, they were already there.

And that's where "(Disruptive) Innovation as a Liberal Art" came from. The goals for the program are two fold. First I want to introduce our students to what I think are a set of really valuable new ideas and skills (or at least a really valuable framing of same). Second, I want to both motivate and equip our students and myself and my colleagues to actually invent this liberal arts for the 21st century that we have been talking about for the last decade or so.

What Will We Learn?

The value proposition, so to speak, of the course will be the cultivation of a mindset and development a set of skills that help the student solve problems and create value.

If I unpack that a bit, the program I'm imagining teaches you how to see problems and imagine solutions, to rapidly build prototypes of your ideas and use feedback from them to iterate, to thrive in a dialectic of the freedom of "why not" and the constraints of "how will you get people to do that?", to work on teams and engage with colleagues in a manner that multiplies your capacities, to communicate your ideas and results in a manner that generates enthusiasm as well as useful feedback, to assess the practicality of your ideas and to develop a plan for realizing them in a sustainable manner.

The course will blend hands on exercises, field work, and "book learning." It will introduce practices taken from art, design, and engineering education into the more traditional liberal arts areas. It will move back and forth between the methods of social science, natural science and humanities. As I now envision it, it will push students to develop in seven directions.


The training of the innovator starts with the power of observation. The student will learn to look at the world around her to see both what is there and what is not there. We might watch how students actually use the library, how a professor prepares a lecture, or how grades are entered into an online system. She learns to observe, measure, ask, and listen. To train an innovator we borrow techniques from art and photography, psychology and anthropology. We'll visit student study spaces, websites, and labs. Her eye gets extended into the other senses: what does it sound like here? what does it smell like?

There is a scene in the movie The Bourne Identity when Matt Damon's amnesiac character tries to understand who he is. "Why do I come in here and immediately know all the sight lines," he asks, "I can tell you the license plate numbers of all six cars outside, I can tell you that our waitress is left handed and the guy at the bar weighs 215 pounds and knows how to handle himself. I know the best place to look for a gun is the cab of the grey truck outside." We won't be training spies but that's the sort of thing we are trying to cultivate in student innovators - whether with the eyes of designers or business people or policy makers or technologists, we want them to be able to constantly see opportunities for improving the world.

Fortunately, this will less shock the liberal arts system than exploit it. Almost every subject you can study in a traditional liberal arts curriculum involves learning new ways to see. In biology, astronomy, and art history it is literal but it is true in every field. We cultivate being observant. We learn about framing and reframing. We see the unspoken assumptions in an argument or theory and we can uncover whole new fields by discarding assumptions. In both art and psychology we learn about figure and ground. In sociology and anthropology we are schooled in the arts of observation. In statistics we learn to see patterns in data.

In cross-cultural and historical studies our eyes are opened to appreciate the taken for granted as taken-for-granted rather than as real, fixed, and given.

On this score at least, I don't have to worry too much about upsetting the liberal arts apple cart.


A first lesson of the innovation "curriculum" is that innovation is not invention, that which is new and original builds on what already exists by new juxtapositions and combinations. New devices, practices, and policies do not come out of thin air. The original iPhone, for example, had very little in the way of new technology in it. She is most valuable as an innovator when she brings to the table a knowledge of everything that's already been done (and/or a hunger to find out about it). We will need students to be intellectually omnivorous and insatiable. Some may think it's all about creating an app but they'll quickly learn it's about encyclopedic research.

This should work well in the liberal arts college environment. In some sense we have always attempted to cultivate in the liberal arts student the arrogant presumptuousness that most everything is worth knowing and that the question "why do I need to know this?" is almost never a good one. The liberal arts graduate is valued for her breadth of knowledge. She has studied some history and literature even if she is a biologist. She learned about immigration and demography although her degree is in poetry. The math major minored in classics. The history major who applies to law school took several courses in computer science and ethnomusicology. Their broad stock of knowledge allows them to connect intellectually with a wide range of people and to be a creative problem solvers because problems do not respect disciplinary boundaries.

If we can recruit students like this, we're in business.


Walls are anathema in innovation and design education. Not inter- but trans-disciplinary. The tools we need to solve a problem or find inspiration are often "over there." The designer needs to know about the chemistry of her materials. The innovator needs to know some accounting or enough about code to work with her coders. If I am teaching educational innovators one of the first things they need to know is that there is no such field. The skills and knowledge they will need will be found in history courses, education courses, psychology courses, sociology courses, computer science courses, and business courses. In addition to "knowing a lot of stuff about the world" they need to be prepared to seek out answers where ever they may be found.

This too dovetails nicely with the traditional idea of a liberal arts education. Breadth is considered so fundamental that it is sometimes mandatory - we make the students break through the walls and study on the other side.

So I think we are OK on this one too. When our innovation course sends students out to climb over or dismantle walls hungry for the knowledge on the other side, they'll just be doing what they already know how to do.


Another early lesson in the innovation curriculum is to disabuse students of the idea that creativity is a muse-inspired solo act of the lone genius. Inventions rarely come out of a single brain. Innovation never does.

When we teach innovation we spend a lot of time teaching people how to work in teams, well aware that there is nothing natural about it. One must learn to be a team contributor and one must learn how to use the contributions of team members. One learns new ways to talk and new ways to listen. A well functioning team is not a division of labor, but a multiplication of labor. We come to trust one another with our ideas because we know that we all understand the care and feeding of our respective creativity. We build on other people's ideas and we thrill when they build on ours. When a team works well, no one is quite sure where the brilliance came from.

This practice finds a cousin in a hallmark of liberal arts education: the seminar - a group of students sitting around a table intensely focused on a text or artifact or problem. It is easy to define this as students sitting with a professor, but the great seminar is one in which classmates hear each other out, pushing the logic of insights, suggesting alternative takes, and helping one another go far beyond where they could go by themselves. The professor has a big role; she structures the interaction, guides the common focus, models the inquisitive thinker, but the magic emerges when the students' minds gear into one another.
In some sense, a team is a seminar on steroids. Everyone talks about collaborative learning these days but actually doing it is a real challenge. The self conscious attention to team work in innovation education will add value to the liberal arts seminar tradition helping us to train students to take that skill out into their lives where teams are ubiquitous and there is no longer a professor at the end of the table.


The word essay is related to the French word ESSAYER, to try, but it is easy to lose sight of this and think of it as a thing, a piece of writing, rather than an act.

One of the most important parts of the innovation process is the iteration of prototypes. We make students create models of their ideas sooner rather than later. Whether the mythical napkin sketch or a simple wire frame, you want to put your idea into the world so that the world can talk to you about it. The philosophy behind prototyping is that although the brain is a powerful organ it a waste to simulate the world when we have the world right here. We constantly push students to put ideas into tangible form.

The iteration of prototypes makes it not "OK to fail" but rather makes it "normal to fail." Work is structured in a manner that permits frequent trials and errors. In teaching innovation we cultivate the mindset that tries and re-tries as quickly and inexpensively as possible and we teach the skills of how to employ prototyping tools that allow us to externalize an idea quickly in a manner that lets us share it, play with it, generate feedback, see the back side of it. We learn to keep track of our versions, learning from each mistake and learning from our learning.

As an example, a machine I've been building started out early in the semester as a cardboard, kebab skewer,and drinking straw initial prototype. It went through 5 cardboard versions before we even thought about motors, electronics, and steel.

Part of the instruction in this course will be in the many media one can use for prototypes. How to mock something up on a wiki page, sketch it on a white board, record an improv session, use Legos to model a new classroom shape. And we take it a step further by tracking our design process along the way in a manner that doubles down on burning the process of revision into our sense of practice.

This practice bears a lot of resemblance to the essay that lies at the center of the liberal arts teaching. We expect students to work things out by trying and by sharing the fruits of their labors with teachers and peers who are expected to constructively criticize. That sounds a lot like prototyping. And in the best experiences, final products result from a long series of drafts. Anyone who writes for their job knows that nothing improves a piece of writing like putting it onto paper and then reading it out loud and then rewriting it and then rewriting it.

My step-son's best experience in high school came when, after spending over a month working up a paper on Thomas More's Utopia he finally determined it was good enough to show to his teacher. After their conference he came home persuaded he needed to tear it up and start over. He was enthralled by the experience and did perhaps the best work of his high school career.
The rapid prototyping and iteration of innovation practice are really just essays and drafts, but on steroids! What's useful to the liberal arts is the explicitness and self consciousness with which these are a part of innovation practice.


An old aphorism about innovation is this: If you build a better mousetrap the world will beat a path to your door. Aside from the fact this this is often not true - it takes a massive PR campaign for people to find out about your mousetrap no matter how good it is - it raises the question as to which part of it is the motivation. What we are trying to develop when we teach innovation, I suggest, a big element of the innovator's mindset, is the urge to improve the mousetrap, not the hope that the world will come to your door. Sometimes you can't see that because every young person gets excited by the idea of being the next Mark Zuckerberg, but that's not really where it's at. The world is not fixed as it is, it is there to be fixed.

The driving force in the course I'm hoping to teach will be a passion for making the liberal arts college of the 21st century everything it can be and then some. We want people to have both the attitudes and the skills to be the "change agents" the world needs.

There are clear echoes of this in the contemporary rhetoric around liberal arts and especially liberal education more generally which are full of references to civic responsibility. And in our own liberal arts college context we talk a lot about social justice. Both point in the same direction - education should help you cultivate the urge to make a difference as well as give you the skills to do so.
For many of us, the liberal arts are romantic at their core. There must be something to education beyond the promise of a bigger pay check?

As Steve Jobs said, the point is to make a dent. Why else be here.


In the world of innovation and design it sometimes seems that they festishize the beautiful and the clever. Walk around Apple or Google or visit a designer's apartment or read through the pages of Wired magazine. But there's reason to this rhyme. Just look at that iPhone in your purse or that Apple watch on your wrist or those coffee table books on your coffee table. When we say "surround yourself with…" smart people, the best people, beautiful objects, good design it is because the innovator takes her taste seriously. As a part of the course we will immerse ourselves in the best examples of educational innovation: Plato's Academy, the 19th century German university, the tutorial system at Oxford and Cambridge, the origins of Kindergarten, Black Mountain College, the experimental colleges of the 1960s, the very best examples of online learning, the most successful experiments in teaching. This cycles back around to "learning to see" but this time the focus is to always see what COULD BE.

The epitome of a liberal arts education is probably "the great books" curriculum. Almost no one who studies the philosophy of Kant, the plays of Shakespeare, or the art of the renaissance ever expects to apply what she learns to later life. You do not read Moby Dick in case you find yourself in a contest with a whale; you read Moby Dick because you are a human being living in human society. To grapple with the mind of Herman Melville through the novel or to ponder with Rilke an archaic torso of Apollo or a panther pacing behind bars is to have an encounter with human excellence. It raises the bar on your everyday thoughts, it changes who you are, it shows you something of human possibility.

Both liberal arts and design have sometimes been criticized as being elitist. But in some perverse sense, we are willing to own this, we in this room actually think the world is a better place when more people have read Dostoevsky, when "ordinary" people know some chemistry. Innovation education inculcates an appreciation for the well designed elevator button panel or bus schedule or family leave policy on the belief that such appreciation will cause it to spread. Our mission can be to graduate students who not only been to the proverbial mountaintop to see what is possible, but have also absorbed enough of that image to expect of the institutions they work in nothing less than excellence and then to get to work making that happen.

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