I was talking to someone recently about one of my favorites subjects: the future of the residential liberal arts college. In an age where online communication is increasingly the norm, an age in which face-to-face contact is seen as inefficient or “uncomfortable,” why should families make the great investment of spending four years in an artificially controlled community aimed at regular, intense personal interaction? Decades ago students who went to liberal arts colleges were likely to find people much like themselves. The schools drew on a fairly homogeneous population, and the relationships one developed while a student were supposed to enhance the family networks and local connections one brought to undergraduate life. The liberal arts education was broadening (at least in terms of an introduction to the cultures of Europe and North America), and the social environment provided the “finish.”
All of this began to change in the wake of World War II, and conditions were dramatically altered when schools made fair access a priority. The combination of proactive outreach to under-represented groups and the expansion of curricula far beyond the high culture of the West changed the demographics and the content of liberal education. Wesleyan was a leader in this regard, aggressively looking for talented students from groups previously discriminated against, and creating classes that went far beyond the traditional offerings.
Let’s take the Music Department at Wesleyan as an example. At many schools the Music Department would have been the most tied to European high culture, and the least likely to stray too far from the traditional canon. Wesleyan had long been a very musical campus – even known as the “Singing College of New England” because of its talented a cappella groups and championship Glee Club. A few music professors went to President Butterfield in the 1960s to get support for advanced work in ethnomusicology, a field almost unknown at our peer institutions. Soon, musicians from across Asia and then Africa would find students and audiences at Wesleyan. Professor Mark Slobin, whose interests range from his fieldwork in Afghanistan to Klezmer to movie music, continues to exemplify this voracious appetite for cultural diversity at the highest level of skill and performance. So does Su Zheng, now Chair of the department, a scholar of traditional Chinese and Japanese music as well as contemporary music of the Asian Diaspora.
Around the same time as Wesleyan students were learning Gamelan and African Drumming, Wes was also drinking deeply at the well of experimental music and jazz. John Cage’s time in residence here had a profound impact on teachers and students, and the tradition of experimentation continues with current faculty such as Anthony Braxton, Alvin Lucier and Ron Kuivila. This doesn’t mean we’ve ignored the European tradition, though. Professor Jane Alden’s work on medieval singing traditions, and Neely Bruce’s on more contemporary ones, have had an important impact on the field as they inspire our current students.
The cosmopolitanism of the music department is in tune with the wonderful musical diversity of student life. From Eastern European song, to ska, from “surrealist pop” to the mighty Pep Band, our students make music with passion and joy. This kind of musical culture, in and outside the classroom, has evolved in our residential liberal arts context —indeed, it depends on that context. The thirst for experimentation, the ability to cross disciplinary or cultural borders, the scale of our residential life, all of these factors are as key to music at Wesleyan as they are to our curriculum more generally. In Religious Studies or in English, in History or in Government, the course offerings have moved beyond the comfortably familiar to open cosmopolitan networks of learning. Programs such as American Studies and East Asian Studies have gone beyond the national paradigms of education to reframe problems and explore possibilities.
The great advantage of our cosmopolitan liberal arts education is that it allows students to explore international, virtual networks of knowledge while learning the virtues (the pleasures and productivity) of face-to-face conversation, participation and cooperation. Whether learning music or biophysics, consistent personal contact with teachers and fellow-students deepens the education. The university must continue to be proactive about finding students from diverse backgrounds because this enhances everyone’s education in a residential community. And we must continue to enrich our curriculum by developing classes that sometimes go beyond traditional canons because by doing so we open up new possibilities for learning and life. Today’s Wesleyan students do plug into expansive virtual networks, of course, but they do so without sacrificing campus interactions that give these networks additional intensity and relevance.
There are serious challenges to our residential liberal art school model. But I take heart from the example of music, which shows how we might meet them by becoming ever more open to the wider world while valuing the vitality of our campus community.
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