I’ve written some about my college education. I attended Wabash College from the fall of 1988 until I graduated in the spring of 1992 with a Bachelor’s of Arts degree in philosophy and German. Wabash College is a liberal arts college for men. Wabash’s curriculum is designed to impart general knowledge across a broad spectrum of topics. More importantly, the curriculum is designed to foster independent inquiry, critical thought, and clear expression both oral and written. To read purposefully, think critically, and write effectively.
I have relied on this educational foundation in everything I have accomplished since college. More than any particular formula, anecdote or algorithm these principles have served me well. I believe in the liberal arts and I defend them as a true and valued principle of higher education: increasingly necessary in a more complicated, connected world.
I came across Liz Coleman‘s recent TED Talk, “Liz Coleman’s call to reinvent liberal arts education” in the past week. Coleman presents a powerful dissection of the state of higher education and revival of the power and necessity of the liberal arts. I was overjoyed. Liz Coleman is the president of Bennington College. In the mid-1990s she deployed a radical plan to reinvent the college and the liberal arts the college entrusts.
The complaint: “Over the past century the expert has dethroned the educated generalist to become the sole model of intellectual accomplishment.”
A solution: Develop a framework of higher education as an active pursuit — a performing art for public good. Include rhetoric, design, meditation, improvisation, and quantitative reasoning alongside the canon of traditional topics. On technology she reminds us that we must acknowledge that the more powerful our reach of our voices the more important the question “About what?”
Specialization obfuscates problems. Specialization constructs a world of silos: people working alongside one another never fully realizing the interconnectedness of what each other does. Specialization creates a world of blinders, or worse yet a world of the blind leading the uninterested. To this end I found this statement one of Coleman’s most powerful:
“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 possibility for finding common ground. Idolatry, 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. [….] 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. [….] The problem is there is no such thing as a viable democracy made up of experts, zealots, politicians and spectators.”
I am encouraged to hear such a powerful appreciation for the generalist, for the soundness of the liberal arts, updated with a call to public action. For too long our culture has turned introverted to the point of selfishness and conceded the spheres of philanthropy, charity and welfare to religion. And perhaps more importantly than concern for our fellow man, but the concession of even thinking about the larger interconnectedness of systems. Particularly as they impact concepts such as justice, equity and truth.
I came across Coleman’s talk just a day after reading the following line from F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s short story “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” and maybe a week before my own birthday. Birthday’s and New Years Day are two moments that bring out a particularly strong tendency toward introspection and self-evaluation: “At eighteen our convictions are hills from which we look; at forty-five they are caves in which we hide.”