Creating a New Narrative for Residential Liberal Arts Colleges
By Rebecca Chopp, President, Swarthmore College
An Address to the Conference on the Future of the Liberal Arts College in America and its Leadership Role in Education around the World
Co-sponsored by Swarthmore College and Lafayette College
April 9-11, 2012, Easton, PA
I'd like to begin by thanking each of the panelists and those in attendance for participating in this conference. At this conference, we are identifying many of the opportunities and challenges education faces. Books, articles, and media coverage offer up an ever-growing list of issues including finance, governance, technology, the psychosocial development of students, and demographic changes. As leaders, we respond to books such as The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities are Reshaping the World; The Five-Year Party: How Colleges Have Given up on Educating Your Child and What You Can Do About It; and Declining by Degrees: Higher Education at Risk. One who tries to address these multiple problems can feel like a firefighter battling the western wildfires, aiming a hose at one fire only to have three others blaze up!
I hope to spend a few minutes this morning to step back from or to hover above the multiple issues that face us in order to ask about our larger framework of what liberal arts is and does in the 21st century. Given both our tradition and our present circumstance, what is our compelling narrative, or framework, of the liberal arts? It is especially important to think about the nature and purpose, what I will call the narrative of the liberal arts, as we turn this morning to what we might rightly call the twin signatures of liberal arts - knowledge and residential community.
By narrative I mean an organizing and practical philosophy that frames the assumptions of politicians and parents, of taxpayers and donors, but also of presidents and faculty, of boards and staff, of students and donors. This narrative would, in the words of cultural critic Neil Postman, tell, "a story that constructs ideals, prescribes rules of conduct, provides a source of authority, and, above all, gives a sense of continuity and purpose."
I believe that one of our most urgent tasks is to provide a new narrative of and for the liberal arts in the context of the 21st century. Our task-as presidents, faculty, staff, foundation directors, board members and friends-is to imaginatively and realistically navigate our institutions through turbulent, powerful, and also very promising waters by developing a compelling narrative that communicates our purpose to our many publics even as it guides the ongoing evolution of our colleges in a time of great transformation.
During historical periods of transformation in which an institution faces multiple challenges and opportunities at once, fresh and compelling narratives are crucial to guiding institutional change and offering a compelling account of the mission to various publics. Some years ago when I was serving as provost at Emory, a board member explained a transformation in his understanding of his business. A manufacturer of checks, for years he thought of his business as printing checks. But when the web impacted his business practices, he realized that his business wasn't just to make checks; it was to transfer funds as a part of the financial services industry. Pretty soon, this new narrative began to guide changes in the structure and culture of his business as he expanded services to include more than just printing checks. This simple story illustrates one of the most important challenges we face: how to see what we do in fresh ways, and use this new insight to change what we do in light of the emerging future.
Please note that I will assume we resist the popular and highly political narrative of education as a consumer good-a narrative that has largely replaced, at least in national politics, the narrative of the social compact linking freedom, education, and democracy. Several factors have contributed to the devolution of education into a consumer good, including a growing emphasis on vocational training and affordability as well as escalating costs.
Our tradition, expressed so beautifully in the collection of essays entitled Distinctively American, published in 2000, relies on a founding myth of the social compact between American higher education and democratic society. Simply put, the story goes like this: Sixteen years after the Pilgrims landed on the shore of Plymouth Harbor, Harvard was founded. As the frontier of the expanding United States moved west, new communities organized colleges as soon as they were able. In the 1860's, the great land grant universities emerged with an even stronger focus on meeting the needs of individuals and communities. With each wave of development, higher education evolved to meet this one great mission: educating leaders and citizens to realize their potential and build their capacity for freedom and serving society.
The great narrators of education have envisioned this social compact time and time again, underscoring the point made so well by Thomas Jefferson, "I look to the diffusion of light and education as the resource to be relied on for ameliorating the condition, promoting the virtue, and advancing the happiness of man.
Each of our schools is a distinct expression of this social compact, and the resulting tapestry of knowledge and social responsibility for the common good supports, promotes, and expands freedom in its many expressions in this country. By our willingness to encourage critical and creative thinkers and to cultivate leaders and citizens who can combine self-reflection, disciplined action, and community building, we advance freedom of thought and expression and personal and social responsibility. As William Cronin noted, "Education for human freedom also means education for human community."
From the perspective of this tradition, when I look closely at the small liberal arts colleges we represent, what I see is an incredible degree of evolutionary, and even revolutionary, change in how knowledge is produced, interpreted, transmitted, taught, learned, and lived. I also find social and cultural experiments, some utopian in nature, of how to live out democracy and educate leaders in new ways. I am coming to believe that our residential academic communities are incubators or pilots of new ways to link knowledge, freedom, and democracy on a global stage.
This story of transformation and paradigm change is one we need to tell. A powerful narrative, if we can write one together, will emphasize the value of what we have always done well and go on to guide this evolution through the altered structures, cultures, and practices that will necessarily occur.
I suggest that we begin by reinterpreting the social contract reframing the twin components of the liberal arts: 1.) Expanding our definition of what knowledge is, how it is created and transmitted, and how students and faculty engage one another in what I will call "knowledge design," and 2). Extending the distinct role our campuses play as intentional communities within the broader public especially as we focus on educating our students in the civic virtues of building inclusive, sustainable and civil, democratic, communities and on training our next generation of ethical leaders.
Imagining the Future of Knowledge
To imagine the future of knowledge, it helps to track the flow of ideas and knowledge across the years. In the Middle Ages roads linked ancient cities that were great centers of learning. Students and professors travelled these roads to discover the knowledge that was concentrated in cities such as Paris, Heidelberg, Salamanca, Cairo, Baghdad and Constantinople, or current-day Istanbul.
As roads once paved the way to learning, so do new forms of social organization and technology today. To use Tom Friedman's expression, technology has flattened the globe, making it possible for anyone with a laptop and a WIFI connection to have access to the world's most brilliant minds.
In response, people are finding new ways to organize, communicate, and learn. We might summarize the current period as a shift from a bounded bureaucracy in which knowledge is divided into set disciplines to a porous network in which knowledge is fluid and collaborative.
In 2008 John Seely Brown and Richard Adler noted that for a variety of reasons-not the least of which is the rise of the Internet-"social learning" is replacing "Cartesian learning." To Brown and Alder, Cartesian learning achieves the transfer of knowledge from one thinker-owner to another through linear pedagogy.
Social learning, however, does not rely on linear transfer. Social learning is based on the premise that we understand content through conversation and grounded interaction around problems or actions." 21st-century social learning goes well beyond traditional modes of participation to include the ways professors bring students into their subjects by showing them how to "be" a physicist, for example, as they are studying the content of that field. Whereas students might have spent years accumulating substantive knowledge before joining a "community of practice," now they are invited in at the outset (Brown and Adler 2008).
And this generation of students is ready for this form of engagement. They live in a world with few boundaries and compartments, where they multitask and tweet throughout the day. Partly because of this open access and wide-range of interactions, they want more and better forms of problem-centered, community-based, digitally informed learning.
Faculty and students are not waiting for institutions to act. Many of the most energized and passionate faculty and students inhabit the flexible centers and institutes our schools have created, or they work on projects and programs that welcome new, often interdisciplinary, ways to organize knowledge and use new practices of problem-based learning to teach. It's phenomenal to watch a faculty member use a specific problem a non-profit group is facing to teach statistics to math-resistant students, or to have a philosopher and biologist join to teach an introductory environmental course on "nature" in the field rather than the classroom or lab.
To encourage these exciting possibilities, we will have to develop creative ways to structure old and new forms of faculty work, while also making it easier for students to integrate many forms of learning and navigate the curriculum. We will have to reinvent the structures and cultures of education to match the forms of social and participatory learning, teaching, and knowledge creation that will dominate the 21st century. We are beginning to support new models of teaching and learning to help our students innovate, work in teams across many fields, and "design" as well as master ideas, solutions, products, and performances. In short, we are combining the discipline of critical thinking with the more organic processes of creative activity.
Yet even as these changes emerge in our midst, we also see support for maintaining key traditions in scholarship, teaching, and learning. Faculty members help students pick majors that shape their progress through structured semesters and well-defined academic years. Students attend classes face-to-face with their fellow students and teachers and drop by their faculty's offices to discuss complex problems. We need to support transformative changes even as we retain traditional practices. We need to talk about knowledge in ways that are anchored in tradition but also fuel emerging change.
Swarthmore recently finished a fifteen month long strategic planning process. We enjoyed a lot of faculty participation-and of course our plan is much better for it. We completed an audit of globalization and found, to our surprise, that we have lots of global connections we didn't know about. We explored what we should be doing in teaching and leaning and kept discovering that we are doing it already.
From this process I learned that Swarthmore has enjoyed an incredible expansion of practices in teaching, research, and learning. In our various workgroups and on our steering committee, we discovered an appetite for innovation and creativity among our faculty, students, staff and alumni. We found many dots to connect, and many emerging trends to support among both old and new ways of creating knowledge and using knowledge to improve the world.
During this process, I came to shift my own framework from simply thinking we are about the honing of critical thinking to realize that we are, at least in part, now learning, teaching, and creating the design of knowledge.
Can we imagine our institutions as design studios, as spaces and places in which knowledge is invented, uncoupled, and performed and in which critical and innovative thinking are constantly colliding and blending? Would embracing ourselves as incubators of knowledge, as flexible places to design and create, shift the way we think about departments and programs, about requirements and majors? Can we excite the public with the news that although we liberal arts schools are not many in number, we incubate, for the rest of the culture and for those interested in the intersections of freedom, knowledge, and democracy?
We might take a step by reinterpreting critical thinking as knowledge design-a concept aimed at placing creativity and agility at the heart of learning and scholarship by embracing new learning platforms, and recognizing the power of visualization and the remixing of knowledge. In this reality, students would experience college as an engagement in knowledge design-taking them from world in which they live, embedding them in communities of practice, and moving them from consumers of knowledge to co-creators of knowledge with our faculty. My language may not work, but the question is worth pursuing-how do we frame and claim the expansion that is already in our midst?
Cultivation of the Moral Individual and the Common Good
Let's just assume, for the moment, that the first component of our new narrative frames academic work as knowledge design. Let's imagine that our narrative tells the story of liberal arts institutions-gemstones of education-being places where nimbleness and creative thought define our education.
The second component of any compelling narrative needs to include a strong claim about residential community. Liberal arts derive uniqueness and strength from the intense co-existence, collision, and even co-mingling of curricula and extra-curricular aspects to create an education that is about the formation of individuals within community. We, who live in these institutions, understand that this form of education transforms students through their engagement in the academic enterprise, and also in a 24/7 intense and stimulating life outside the classroom.
This reality offers an immense opportunity for us, an opportunity yearned for by our students and many community members and an opportunity that very few other institutions can meet. And our country is in desperate need of what we can offer. Current practices of democratic community-such as tolerance, respect for others, and open debate-are too diminished in our world at large to provide the robust support a thriving society needs.
To make matters even bleaker, a serious crisis exists because we are losing faith in our leaders, our democratic institutions, our own communities, and our long-held sense of the common good. This crisis is deeply linked to the failure of individuals in democratic communities to find common ground in particular and concrete ways. Just as freedom in knowledge must shift to a participatory model, freedom in the social and moral sphere must shift from the unintentional consumer to that of an intentional community.
As our colleges become more agile, we must also imagine new models of community life, build their prototypes, and train our students to lead them into the future. My term for what we can offer is intentional community, and our great opportunity is to frame our narrative in terms of creating models of intentional community for the 21st century. We must ensure that our campus communities teach and promote civil discourse, civic virtues, inclusive community, and a sustainable life together as well as individual lifestyle. To succeed, American liberal arts education must re-embrace our long-held charges to model community and educate ethical leaders who work collaboratively to build those communities in the future. One outcome will be to replace the sole focus of a consumer model for student services with models of intentional community on college campuses.
At Swarthmore we have identified three arenas in which to model our own intentional community: to build upon our efforts in diversity to become an inclusive community; to shape our culture as a space of civility and civil discourse across and beyond our own various interest groups and ideologies; and to live, as much as possible, as a community promoting sustainable living both environmentally and fiscally.
I understand that we embrace our roles as schools that educate citizens and leaders. As Martha Nussbaum has noted in both Cultivating Humanity and in Not for Profit, this idea of "the cultivation of the whole human being for the functions of citizenship and life generally has been taken up most fully in the United States." This commitment of education as the formation of practices of freedom in a democracy continues to be in the DNA of the liberal arts college, even as other forms of education have pushed this commitment more to the periphery by focusing on preparation for jobs and on the creation of knowledge. For example, most if not all of us have centers or programs of civic engagement and social responsibility.
But as Gene Lang noted in his essay "Distinctively American," published in the book by this title, even with our internal applause for students who are involved in civic engagement off campus, all too often the offices that support community service operate according to a consumer services model rather than an academic model grounded in research or problem-based learning. Despite the dedication of some professional staff and a few faculty members, most faculty and staff are not prepared to embrace the focus on education as cultivating practices and values of living in all aspects of community, thus building for the common good. And yet students express the desire to bring academics into this work, in order not to just "do good" but to learn the imaginative and critical work of shaping communities that are just places where people flourish.
If the new narrative of education is to find a home in the evolving structures of knowledge design, we have to recognize that the residential community is critical to our entire educational program. In fact, our residential communities are nothing less than a way to educate future citizens and leaders to build community on campus and in society, and construct new models of community for the 21st century. Why does this particular kind of residential incubator work so well? How might we claim its full value and go on to imagine it working even more effectively?
Despite my worries-and there are many-there are emerging trends and creative practices upon which to build. Many of our liberal arts colleges are renewing efforts to engage students in practices of civility. Efforts at diversity are expanding to move from the preoccupation of minority only students into the center of academic excellence and call upon all students, staff, and faculty to experiment with inclusive community models. And sustainability is becoming less one cause among many and more structured by economic efficiency and the cultural practices of new generations of students and staff who support a variety of sustainable practices. Many of us have or are developing programs to support ethical leaders who can contribute to and even build community in the world.
The task of renewing the common good and teaching the art and science of community building is, in my judgment, one of the most critical goals for higher education and one of the hardest to achieve in the years ahead. To achieve this goal, we need to understand our mission to support the development of the self and the development of community. We must invent or re-invent educational practices that embrace virtue and practical wisdom as well as intellect and aesthetics; and affirm the right of education to set standards for behavior, expectations of values, and commitments to the common good.
We need to encourage individuals to exercise the freedom to connect current models of values and community, a charge that will foster community and innovation at one and the same time. To become a type of intentional community, one that portrays a new vision of the beloved community for the US and around the world, we need to demand more of our students, faculty, and staff in terms of a commitment to life together and we need to set high standards for behavior in and outside of the classroom.
As I prepared to talk with you about these ideas, I was filled with anticipation of what each of you would bring to this conference. So far, my expectations are more than met. And now I hope for a conversation with you about the idea of reframing the twin components of the liberal arts. Does it make sense to expand our definition of knowledge from teaching, learning, and scholarship to "knowledge design?" Is it right to draw more heavily on our residential communities to educate our students in the practical virtues of building inclusive, sustainable and civil, democratic, communities around the world? Changes like these could lead to the reinterpretation of our social contract with the American public-the contract that calls on us to build the common good. Nothing less is at stake.