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Liz Coleman reinvents liberal arts education

This post is part of a series from the TED 2009 conference held in Long Beach, California from February 4-8th. You can read other posts in the series here, and the TED site will release video from the talk in the coming weeks or months. Because I’m putting these posts together very quickly, I will get things wrong, will misspell names and bungle details. Please feel free to use the comments thread on this post to offer corrections. You may also want to follow the conference via Twitter or through other blogs tagged as on Technorati.

I was a student at Bennington College, taking courses towards my degree at Williams College, in 1993. So I remember the bathroom graffiti that Chris Anderson uses to introduce Liz Coleman, the president of Bennington College: “Liz, why are you destroying our school?”

In 1993, Coleman eliminated presumtive tenure from Bennington and fired a third of the professors. That helped cement her reputation as a radical reformer in higher education and an expert on the importance of the liberal arts. (It also means that some of us remember her as a very controversial and divisive figure.)

Coleman challenges us with the idea that “liberal arts education no longer exists.” The liberal arts no longer provides the breath of knowledge and capacity for civic engagement we count on it to provide. This is why educators in the former Soviet Union looked to liberal arts as the model to rebuild their educational system after the fall of communism.

But liberal arts is in crisis. The expert has dethroned the generalist. “Expertise has its moments, but the price of its dominance is enormous.” Subjects are broken into smaller pieces, with an emhpasis on the technical and obscure. This, combined with the idea that neutrality is a condition of academic integrity creates an environment that’s toxic if we try to connect education and public good.

She reminds us that, in the years that preceded her time at Bennington, we saw stunning abuses of power and a “harrowing predeliction for the use of force”. And yet, “all our firepower was impotent in stemming slaughter in Rwanda.” While US public education had been a model for the world, it’s become an embarrasment at the primary and secondary level. And “despite our research establishment, more than half of the american public don’t believe in evolution… and don’t ask very hard questions to those who do.”

Coleman believes that no one was drawing connections between the body politic and our leading educational institutions. While colleges are at the top of the list for accessing influence to personal wealth, they don’t even appear on the list most of us have of influences over access to democracy. She quotes Jefferson: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, it expects something that never was or never will be.”

She’s now trying to recreate liberal arts education engaged with the community by trying to “make the political and social changes the organizers of the curiculum,” focusing the education on “health, equity, education, environment, governance, and the use of force”. These subjects must be addressed as mutually dependent circles, not isolating triangles.

She quotes students, who’ve said, “Deep thought matters when you’re considering what to do about things that matter.” What also matters, she believes, are rhetoric, design, mediation, improvisation, quantitative reasoning and technology, which interact to allow us to connect education and social transformation. “Artists at long last take their place at the tables as strategists,” and students continuously move outside the classroom to engage the world directly.

“This new wine needs new bottles,” she tells us – specifically, Bennington is building a center for the advancement for public action, a “secular church”. The announcement of the center reads, in part, “We intend to turn the intellectual and imaginative power, passion and boldness of our students, faculty and staff on developing strategies for acting on the most critical challenges of our time.”

With the exhiliration over Obama, we must remember that our work is not done. “We the people have become inurred to our own irrelavence beyond waiting another four years.” We’ve been sidelined by the idea of the expert, but we need to remember, “There is no such thing as a viable democracy of experts, zealots, politicians and spectators.”

8 thoughts on “Liz Coleman reinvents liberal arts education”

  1. Interesting topic. It parallels a similar challenge our Unitarian Universalist church is trying to tackle. The church is in the middle of a very well off neighborhood, and although serving the public good is one of the three legs that serve as its foundation, figuring out ways to engage and facilitate public service among the congregation has consistently been difficult.

  2. Your Barry Schwartz post & this one have a curious overlap, in that the creation of a “secular church” of “public advancement” veers perilously close to establishing a new set of “rules.” These conversations always leave me badly conflicted, because I am a product of and subscribe to the values of the liberal arts core curriculum, but I am also able to see (as I grow older and more myopic) that there is a strong dose of “thou shalt” and “thou shalt not” in the heart of that curriculum. Religion-based dogmas (or rule sets) had the advantage of at least being plainly requiring an initial act of faith — it was necessary to believe the prime set of assumptions, eg, “In the beginning was the Word…”…or whatever. The tricky part about “secular churches” is that they tend to base their dogma in “science” with the result that the person who argues against is not a heretic, but rather “irrational.” This objection may sound cranky, but I would point out that when I was being handed the “liberal arts canon” the only literature deemed worthy of study was that by dead European males, the only philosophy on the table was Greek-Roman-French, and the only religion was post-Luther protestantism — for “obvious” and “logical” reasons. I also spent too much time in the USSR to be persuaded by the “scientificism” of that secular religion. In short, Coleman leaves me in a familiar quandry — whole-heartedly in agreement with her attack on tenure, for example (the academic equivalent of rent-seeking) yet frightened by her apparent conviction that there is a better dogma with which to replace the old one. At the end of the day (which is where I am approaching), I increasingly suspect that the real value lies not in Coleman’s triumph, nor that of her opponents, but rather in the flexibility & vitality of a system that allows both of them (and myriad others) to make their best arguments to everyone else — which indeed is the implication of your last sentence. I recently re-read War & Peace — in which Tolstoy argues for a “calculus” of history:
    “Only by taking infinitesimally small units for observation (the differential of history, that is, the individual tendencies of people) and attaining to the art of integrating them (that is, finding the sum of these infinitesimals) can we hope to arrive at the laws of history.”

    I suspect that that particular dead white male may have gotten that right.

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  4. Ethan, thanks for capturing one of the head-shaking highlights of TED this year; Liz’s talk was my first exposure to someone who has a compelling and urgent concern that we must not take for granted our roles as citizens and “guardians of a secular democracy.” I am left wondering, how can i best guard this privilege?

    I’m sending my kids to Bennington–if they get in!

  5. This is a great movement; but I don’t think the only focus has to be civic engagement and governance (though those are clearly missing from most curricula beyond a cursory “Gov 101” required course).

    My B.A. is from a small honors program that hides in plain sight at UT called “Plan II.” It requires all students to take philosophy, a customized literature course, biology (mainly ethics), physics (mainly special relativity), a mindbending math course, a formal logic course, and 4 history courses (world/western civ and then a regional focus).

    Now, any lover of learning for its own sake is probably already drooling over a course listing like that, especially as it was taught by top-notch professors and the occasional nobel laureate. The best part was actually the linkages you begin to draw between these vastly different tracks, seeing patterns emerge across the disciplines that presented new cognitive models to approach hard problems.

    Now, adding a level of civic engagement (dare I use the word “activism”?) to that kind of education? Brilliance.

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