Pitzer College Talk
October 11, 2001
I am so pleased to be here with you today, and to have this opportunity to speak with you. Pitzer College is a wonderful place and in many ways fulfills my ideal of a liberal arts education. From the very beginning of this process I have felt a very strong sense of connection because of my belief in the importance of self-exploration, interdisciplinary work, external studies, diversity, and civic responsibility.
I have thought a great deal about what I would say to you today. I deliberately abandoned all of the usual rhetoric I employ when I speak about the liberal arts and its challenges to prospective students, alumni groups, friends of the College, and faculty. Not that I have been disingenuous in past talks, but I believe we are living in a time when we must think new thoughts and employ fresh language because it is crucial that we be very intense about what we are doing. This is a time when vision is essential. Exactly one month ago today, we entered a new era.
So here's the good news, during this address I promise I will spare you the usual trite declarations about how change is constant, diversity is essential, careful endowment management is crucial, and that technology will transform teaching. Instead I invite you to imagine creating a liberal arts college without boundaries or borders. To begin this journey we must publicly recognize our challenges.
Three years ago I participated in Harvard University's Institute for Educational Management, a 2 1/2 week program where chief academic officers and presidents come together to discuss trends in education. One day our Harvard professors spoke about the impact that distance education would have on liberal arts colleges and essentially forecast our demise. They argued, very convincingly, that distance education was growing--indeed it was--and that liberal arts institutions couldn't compete with the conveniences such programs offered. Initial studies indicated that distance education students scored within statistically acceptable margins on tests when compared to traditionally taught course exams. Distance education was available 24/7; it was more affordable, less obtrusive and people could receive their education right in their living rooms. The Harvard Faculty did their best to paint a gloomy picture and concluded with two pieces of advice: first buy stock in distance education companies such as Unext and Harcourthighered, and second begin creating distance education programs at our colleges as a bulwark against the inevitable. Now clearly our professors were being deliberately provocative in order to encourage debate. My comment that day and I'll stand by it now was that the two are not comparable. The core of a liberal arts education consists of people interacting in person. It would be the same as arguing that a car and bicycle are identical in terms of purpose and outcome. Certainly they are both modes of transportation, yet the experience and quality offered are decidedly different.
After I returned to my campus I didn't invest in any of the distance education companies (although I did make a brief, ill-timed foray into E-toy stock), and I didn't initiate distance learning programs even though there was a plethora of grant money available at the time for that purpose. In retrospect, my decision not to invest in education dot.coms certainly was a good one. It's worth noting that after Harcourt invested millions into creating an on-line degree program it had enrolled a total of 25 students before it was shut down earlier this year. Instead, what I did was reflect on what constitutes the core of an integrated liberal arts education because my concern, which was probably the subtext of the Harvard dialogue, was that we need to be much better at communicating to the public what liberal arts colleges do that differentiates us from other forms of education.
There exists a false dichotomy--applied skills versus liberal arts--a dichotomy distance education highlights. In conversations I have had with parents, I am repeatedly asked to explain (and reassure) how an excellent liberal education is also a good practical one. I speak about the experiences our students have and how they will more easily adapt to their various careers. A liberal education provides the methodology for seeking the best answers surrounded by other creative people dedicated to the exchange of ideas. Our students will be reflective about their lives, curious about their world, and clever enough so that they can shape the course of their lives rather than have their lives happen to them. An educated person is ready to address questions and challenges that will be presented by a future continuously unfolding. Some challenges will be related to employment, others will have to do with the full sweep of experience and meaning. We must address these currents without making ourselves into something that we are not, and we need to do a better job of explaining that data absorption and narrow skills acquisition are different than educating for one's entire life and the way in which one lives it.
Now while my initial remarks could be interpreted as Luddite cries for a halcyon internet-free past that would be far from the truth. I am a staunch advocate of technology for all the ways in which it enhances the educational experience for faculty and students. I crossed over to the other side years ago, and during my time at Coe College I have worked together with faculty to successfully encourage a cultural shift that translates into a technology driven educational environment, yet all our technology usage is meant to service and underscore our mission--creating an integrated, residential, liberal arts experience where people must interact in intense face to face exchanges. Liberal arts students cannot self-select out their community of learners into the anonymity of courses offered in cyberspace.
A college without boundaries would be a place where all the stakeholders understand and think about our deeper purpose and where our purpose is foremost in all that we do. Envision a college that is such an integral part of the fabric of its larger community that is regarded by citizens as a societal center. Liberal arts colleges operate under the public perception that they hold themselves apart, that they are isolationists. Colleges have worked hard to correct this perception--required community service, internships with non-profit organizations, outreach programs in the form of partnerships with area elementary, middle and high schools, and long-term community projects like Habitat for Humanity are now common experiences for our students. Yet it appears to me that there exists an imbalance in our current direction.
We need to redirect the flow. Without borders means that community members, faculty, students, alumni, parents, the very young and old all believe that a liberal arts college is their place--a space where they are valued, intellectually challenged, and respected. A home where issues are civilly debated, where experiential learning is honored, and where we learn from all segments of society. We must venture in both directions. Think about what constitutes a community center these days. For some it may be a mall, for some a place of religious worship. All of us lead increasingly isolated lives where the thought of community seems either foreign or forced. I challenge you to think of a community where its members--and I'm not speaking about the immediate circle who happen to be employed by it or attend it--treat it as an active and invaluable part of their lives. I raise the topic of community and the leading role liberal arts colleges must take because of what I have witnessed over the past four weeks.
During this time of tragedy and uncertainty people have been contacting me (students, parents, community members, and faculty) asking for education and community. They want seminars and panels so they can begin creating frameworks of thought that can assist in providing answers. Disparate groups are reaching out to the college as a place where important ideas are stored inviting us to expand our notion of community, to be included in the exchange. In response to this demand Coe, like Pitzer College, has sponsored multiple programs, including contemplation services, student retreats, and panels consisting of community members, students, alumni, and faculty. Watching these various groups come together with such passion and need, I do not want to see this unity cease once feelings of security and safety return. Our challenge is to continue this intense movement inward to the deeper purpose of the liberal arts in all that we do. We must draw the campus toward the center of the wider community, to its natural place.
To better prepare ourselves to assume this role in our community, we need to begin by removing barriers within our College that prevent us from achieving our goal of living as learning. A College without borders must consist of a seamless integration between our residential and intellectual community. All too often we have seen campuses where academic and student affairs operate as separate, unfriendly states; this negates the opportunity to create a total learning environment for students and as a result the college misses the opportunity to continue directing students' education outside of the classroom. A few years ago I was invited to be a panel member at the American Association of Higher Education conference where the topic was the relationship between academic and student affairs. Of the three institutions represented, I represented the odd College out where I presented a working model of integration. I speak with the Vice President for Student Affairs every day. We are friends as well as colleagues. We share information and support each other in our student mentoring. We co-present during new student orientation and explain what a holistic residential liberal arts experience means as well as share our expectations. We have instituted a forum series where the two of us meet with students in the residence halls and talk about topics of their choosing. The second panelist discussed how on their campus the two areas were at odds, competitive, and played politics. The third person remarked upon the lack of tension between the two because there was no communication.
At the end of my first year at Coe the faculty passed a series of general education requirements both academic and co-curricular in nature-the first such requirements in the institution's history. The effect of these requirements is difficult to identify with certainty, however, I can report that over the past four years overall retention has increased 10%, record numbers of students are engaged in undergraduate-faculty research, more students are choosing to study overseas, the community knows us, and our academic reputation has increased. Our collaboration has benefited our students and strengthened their college experience and yet there is more we can do. Richard Light in "Making the Most of College" reinforces the uniting of academic and student affairs. He points out that the bulk of students' lives extend outside the classroom which led him to a "simple but enormously powerful" finding that shines through interview after interview of graduating seniors: "Those students who make connections between what goes on inside and outside the classroom report a more satisfying college experience." We need to consider Light's finding in concrete and planned ways rather than hoping that spontaneous synchronicity will happen for all our students.
A College without boundaries and borders must recognize the cultural shift that the World Wide Web represents. While we may believe in the primacy of the text, many of our students do not. I recently was a guest editor for a special edition of Educational Technology entitled "Knowing the Web" where I expressed my concern that the web was being treated as adjunct to the real business of knowledge being conducted. We have now for years viewed the web as a conveyor, and it is time to read it in terms of emergent patterns and kinds of knowledge--in other words as a creator. Liberal arts colleges are the ideal places to begin a substantive exploration about the epistemology of the web. We know that the web is all about world-wide information, today web and information are synonymous in the minds of many. The web is a parallel world in which a vast amount of what is knowable at any moment exists as a loosely cataloged record of where to look next. At the same time the Web offers up the broadest range of information ever available, the very democratic principle that characterizes the participatory medium creates a barroom free-for-all with no punches pulled. The Web is not then merely a bigger collection of information, but also an arena that changes the process of knowing.
The dimension of the Web that expands the representation of different perspectives renews the challenge that has historically been assigned to the liberally educated, namely to achieve enlightened understanding through a consideration of all sides. The web is a battleground of ideas where the liberal arts must invent markers, pliable methodology, to match the spool of medians that carry information. The web constitutes a new environment that reinforces the ethnocentric tendencies promoted by emerging tribal identities of electronically linked communities of interest at the same time it extends the maximal intelligent richness of global diversity. Anthropologists learned that in order to communicate with their subjects, they had to first understand and appreciate their distinct views. If we continue as we have, our students will regard us as truly archaic as we struggle to understand new meanings of "literacy." We must fully engage with this medium and thereby retain the claim that the liberal arts provide the richest way to understand existence.
I’ll conclude with a story. When I was in college, the clearest signs of intellectual and emotional health were that you needed no one. We were pressured and taught to never admit that we needed help or support. Parents were sent letters instructing them to drop their students off at a particular time and then requested to leave. Of course, my parents did as they were requested to do. It was quite clear to me that the active role that they had taken in my life prior to my arrival was over and that consulting, or even worse, having them visit, was an admission of weakness, an indignity you would be loath to suffer. In classes all of our work was independently done. There were no group study sessions, no group projects. There was no interdisciplinary work that I can recall other than the humanities major, which was my second major and a major the college subsequently decided to drop, and in the library there were only individual carrels where you could study. There were no counseling centers and no career service offices. Educational programming in residence halls was non-existent. All of this constituted an awful environment in which to become a healthy, well-rounded person. Students suffered.
We have come a long way in terms of changing our college environment, both in terms of the support systems we have instituted as well as our pedagogy. Yet I attend national conferences where I hear administrators complain that students need more help than ever. Of course, the subtext is “Why can’t they be stronger? Why can’t they be more autonomous?” This worries me. Isn’t it reasonable and healthy for people to need each other, to rely on each other, and to create a group ethos so we may envision ourselves as part of the web of humanity? If this is unreasonable, I fear for us all. In moments such as these when the world appears to be in chaos, old systems are breaking down and new ones have yet to emerge, we act in ways that are instinctive. We turn to each other and we look for comfort and education. To return to practicality, a liberal arts education is resoundingly practical in terms of comprehending our global context. Because of the emphasis we place on historical understanding, cultural difference, and appreciation of social change, students are prepared not for just a day or a week but the next phase of history. I believe to the depths of my soul that this is what liberal arts colleges do best.
Given by President Laura Skandera Trombley on October 11, 2001, at her interview.