Liberal Learning and the University of the Future

I’m just back from the annual meeting of the American Association of Colleges and Universities. The AAC&U is dedicated to “making the aims of liberal learning a vigorous and constant influence on institutional purpose and educational practice in higher education.” — That’s the mission statement, and today the organization works with a wide variety of schools to develop learning outcomes, democratic and inclusive practices, and coherent curricula consistent with the evolution of the liberal arts.

My first task there was to respond to a talk by Mark C. Taylor, whose book Crisis on Campus I’d reviewed in the Los Angeles Times. Mark is a Wesleyan graduate, who taught at Williams for decades and is now Chair of the Religion Department at Columbia University. Mark calls for the creation of a postmodern university, which for him means moving from silos to networks, abolishing departments and tenure, and organizing problems-oriented teaching teams. If we don’t act now, he foresees a deepening crisis in higher education akin to the housing bubble of recent years.

I emphasized some of the key areas about which Mark and I agree. He is right on the money in attacking the powerful, long-term trends toward specialization in university culture, trends which have a decidedly negative impact on undergraduate education. At many schools this has led to a fragmentation of intellectual life, with powerful departments defending their own interests without regard to the welfare of the institution as a whole. Who is going to articulate a holistic vision for undergraduate education when only specialized success is awarded professional prestige?

I have written elsewhere on the importance of giving our students the capacity for translation, or intellectual cross-training, that will allow them to tap into multiple networks of inquiry. Unlike Mark Taylor, I do not think that abolishing tenure will help in this regard. Most schools in America have most of their classes taught by untenured faculty (often graduate students), and the result is not more freedom and breadth. Instead, the poor job conditions for these instructors seem to encourage the replication of the status quo — little innovation, much conformity to disciplinary convention. In our current political context, one in which state, federal and foundation officials are often seized with the desire to regulate public culture, the protection of academic freedom that tenure affords is crucial.

I came away from these meetings realizing how fortunate we are here at Wesleyan to have a faculty that consistently works to improve the education we offer students even as our scholar-teachers continue to help shape the professional fields in which they work. Wes has its challenges, too, including overcoming the intellectual fragmentation that often attends specialization. But we have many professors committed to this task, and that is the most important factor for building the university of the future — a university in which faculty members make student learning the priority in ways that enhance our capacity for research.

Education and the Work of Social Justice

Education can be an important vehicle of social mobility, for giving people the capacity to change their lives for the better. Education should allow students to expand their horizons and to choose (and work for) the kind of life they want to lead — rather than merely accept the lot in life that seemed to have been assigned to them.

Education can also be an important vehicle for protecting social privilege, for giving people the capacity to protect their own and their children’s social standing. Education can be an exclusive good, allowing the sons and daughters of the elite to remain on top.

At Wesleyan we have long believed in opening the university’s doors to talented, creative and ambitious students from all walks of life. We have worked hard to recruit students from groups previously excluded by elite institutions and to provide them with the tools for success here on campus and beyond. We know that everyone in the university benefits from having a diverse campus in which students, faculty and staff educate one another to think critically and creatively while valuing independence of mind and generosity of spirit. That’s our mission.

All around us, however, we see the effects of an educational system that functions to re-empower those with resources while undermining the chances for success of those who do not have that good fortune. There are, however, extraordinary men and women working to change that dynamic, and one of them is here today. Geoffrey Canada, president of the Harlem Children’s Zone, will be our Martin Luther King Jr. speaker this afternoon, and he will share his “simple yet radical idea: to change the lives of inner city kids we must simultaneously change their schools, their families, and their neighborhoods.” He does the work of social justice through education.

Mr. Canada’s talk helps kick-off the year’s Social Justice Leadership Conference. Students, faculty, staff and alumni are coming together to discuss a wide range of issues linking education to other efforts to enhance freedom and fairness. A schedule is here.

From beaches to snow drifts

Over the last week I’d been traveling out West, and many Wes parents (and some of their sons and daughters) wondered how they would cope with the return to colder climes. Walking on the beach on Santa Monica, Sophie asked me more than a few times “Why did we ever leave this place?!” (Sophie was born in Santa Monica when I was at the Getty Center and Kari at UCLA.) Watching the sun come up was a treat:

Sunrise in Santa Monica

I met with more than 200 alumni, students and parents who attended a great event at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and I then went on to Arizona to meet with a smaller but no less energetic group. The beauty of the beaches and then the desert was striking, but returning to Middletown’s snowy landscape has been invigorating.

As I make some final edits to my syllabus for the Past on Film, I wonder how our returning students will react when they see their campus filled with snow drifts from what journalists here are calling one of the “storms of the century.” Wes looks like a winter wonderland, and Foss Hill has been filled with young folks racing down into the snowpack of Andrus Field. And some of the sledders aren’t so young! Kari got me out there yesterday (even though I told her I’d grown allergic to velocity), and it was fun careening down the hill. Here’s the proof:

Roth on Foss Hill
Kari Weil on Foss Hill

I remember well the last “storm of the century” when I was a student at Wesleyan struggling with my senior thesis in 1978. Having the snow to fall into, Foss Hill for sledding, and plenty of camaraderie from professors and friends made the winter warm and welcoming, as well as quite spectacular. It still does!

Looking Ahead, Getting Ready

With the holidays now behind us and the students not yet back from winter break, this is a time some of us use for planning our projects for the next semester. Which is not to say there isn’t plenty of activity on campus. The Admissions Office hasn’t had much of a break at all, as the staff there has been busy preparing the thousands of applications we’ve just received for the thorough evaluation they will get in the coming weeks. The library is open again, and I see professors (and more than a few seniors) moving through the stacks getting their materials for research projects and senior theses. And in the science labs — staffed by graduate and undergraduate students along with faculty — the work continues on subjects ranging from Hedgehog signaling to the surprising capacities of songbirds, from self-medicating insects to self-regulating ecosystems.

I see athletes in the fitness center whenever I get over there and some of the coaches sweating off the extra holiday inches. Men’s and women’s basketball are already in the thick of tough competition, and the track team is competing at the US Military Invitational this weekend. We anticipate a great start to the new semester. Geoffrey Canada, who runs the Harlem Children’s Zone of Waiting for Superman fame, gives the MLK lecture on January 21, and on January 28 the great saxophonist Charles Lloyd brings his quartet to campus.

I’m looking forward to teaching my Past on Film class again, and have recently spent some time thinking about big-picture philosophy. Here’s a review I wrote about a book by two philosophers that was published in the New York Times this week.