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TED2009

Liz Coleman: A call to reinvent liberal arts education

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Bennington president Liz Coleman delivers a call-to-arms for radical reform in higher education. Bucking the trend to push students toward increasingly narrow areas of study, she proposes a truly cross-disciplinary education -- one that dynamically combines all areas of study to address the great problems of our day.

- College president
Liz Coleman radically remade Bennington College in the mid-1990s, in pursuit of a new vision: higher education as a performing art. Full bio

College presidents are not the first people who come to mind
00:12
when the subject is the uses of the creative imagination.
00:16
So I thought I'd start by telling you how I got here.
00:19
The story begins in the late '90s.
00:23
I was invited to meet with leading educators
00:25
from the newly free Eastern Europe and Russia.
00:28
They were trying to figure out how to rebuild their universities.
00:32
Since education under the Soviet Union
00:36
was essentially propaganda
00:39
serving the purposes of a state ideology,
00:41
they appreciated that it would take wholesale transformations
00:44
if they were to provide an education
00:49
worthy of free men and women.
00:51
Given this rare opportunity
00:54
to start fresh,
00:56
they chose liberal arts
00:58
as the most compelling model
01:00
because of its historic commitment
01:02
to furthering its students' broadest intellectual,
01:04
and deepest ethical potential.
01:07
Having made that decision
01:10
they came to the United States,
01:12
home of liberal arts education,
01:14
to talk with some of us
01:16
most closely identified
01:18
with that kind of education.
01:20
They spoke with a passion, an urgency,
01:22
an intellectual conviction
01:26
that, for me, was a voice I had not heard in decades,
01:28
a dream long forgotten.
01:33
For, in truth, we had moved light years
01:35
from the passions that animated them.
01:40
But for me, unlike them,
01:44
in my world, the slate was not clean,
01:48
and what was written on it was not encouraging.
01:52
In truth, liberal arts education
01:56
no longer exists --
01:59
at least genuine liberal arts education -- in this country.
02:01
We have professionalized liberal arts to the point
02:05
where they no longer provide the breadth of application
02:08
and the enhanced capacity for civic engagement
02:12
that is their signature.
02:15
Over the past century
02:17
the expert has dethroned the educated generalist
02:19
to become the sole model
02:23
of intellectual accomplishment. (Applause)
02:26
Expertise has for sure had its moments.
02:28
But the price of its dominance is enormous.
02:33
Subject matters are broken up
02:37
into smaller and smaller pieces,
02:39
with increasing emphasis on the technical and the obscure.
02:42
We have even managed to make the study of literature arcane.
02:46
You may think you know what is going on
02:51
in that Jane Austen novel --
02:53
that is, until your first encounter
02:55
with postmodern deconstructionism.
02:58
The progression of today's college student
03:01
is to jettison every interest except one.
03:04
And within that one, to continually narrow the focus,
03:09
learning more and more about less and less;
03:13
this, despite the evidence all around us
03:17
of the interconnectedness of things.
03:20
Lest you think I exaggerate,
03:23
here are the beginnings of the A-B-Cs of anthropology.
03:26
As one moves up the ladder,
03:31
values other than technical competence
03:33
are viewed with increasing suspicion.
03:35
Questions such as,
03:38
"What kind of a world are we making?
03:40
What kind of a world should we be making?
03:43
What kind of a world can we be making?"
03:46
are treated with more and more skepticism,
03:49
and move off the table.
03:53
In so doing, the guardians of secular democracy
03:55
in effect yield the connection
03:59
between education and values
04:03
to fundamentalists,
04:05
who, you can be sure,
04:07
have no compunctions about using education
04:09
to further their values:
04:12
the absolutes of a theocracy.
04:14
Meanwhile, the values and voices of democracy are silent.
04:17
Either we have lost touch with those values
04:23
or, no better,
04:25
believe they need not
04:27
or cannot be taught.
04:29
This aversion to social values
04:31
may seem at odds with the explosion
04:33
of community service programs.
04:36
But despite the attention paid to these efforts,
04:38
they remain emphatically extracurricular.
04:41
In effect, civic-mindedness is treated
04:45
as outside the realm of what purports to be
04:48
serious thinking and adult purposes.
04:51
Simply put, when the impulse is to change the world,
04:55
the academy is more likely to engender
05:00
a learned helplessness
05:02
than to create a sense of empowerment.
05:05
This brew -- oversimplification of civic engagement,
05:09
idealization of the expert,
05:15
fragmentation of knowledge,
05:17
emphasis on technical mastery,
05:20
neutrality as a condition of academic integrity --
05:22
is toxic when it comes to pursuing the vital connections
05:26
between education and the public good,
05:31
between intellectual integrity
05:34
and human freedom,
05:37
which were at the heart --
05:39
(Applause) -- of the challenge posed to and by
05:41
my European colleagues.
05:45
When the astronomical distance
05:47
between the realities of the academy
05:49
and the visionary intensity of this challenge
05:52
were more than enough, I can assure you,
05:55
to give one pause,
05:57
what was happening outside higher education
06:00
made backing off unthinkable.
06:03
Whether it was threats to the environment,
06:06
inequities in the distribution of wealth,
06:09
lack of a sane policy or a sustainable policy
06:12
with respect to the continuing uses of energy,
06:15
we were in desperate straits.
06:19
And that was only the beginning.
06:21
The corrupting of our political life
06:24
had become a living nightmare;
06:26
nothing was exempt --
06:28
separation of powers, civil liberties,
06:31
the rule of law,
06:34
the relationship of church and state.
06:36
Accompanied by a squandering
06:38
of the nation's material wealth
06:40
that defied credulity.
06:43
A harrowing predilection for the uses of force
06:45
had become commonplace,
06:48
with an equal distaste
06:50
for the alternative forms of influence.
06:52
At the same time, all of our firepower was impotent
06:55
when it came to halting or even stemming
07:00
the slaughter in Rwanda, Darfur, Myanmar.
07:03
Our public education, once a model for the world,
07:08
has become most noteworthy
07:12
for its failures.
07:14
Mastery of basic skills and a bare minimum of cultural literacy
07:16
eludes vast numbers of our students.
07:20
Despite having a research establishment
07:24
that is the envy of the world,
07:26
more than half of the American public
07:28
don't believe in evolution.
07:30
And don't press your luck
07:32
about how much those who do believe in it
07:34
actually understand it.
07:36
Incredibly, this nation,
07:39
with all its material, intellectual and spiritual resources,
07:42
seems utterly helpless
07:48
to reverse the freefall in any of these areas.
07:50
Equally startling, from my point of view,
07:55
is the fact that no one
07:58
was drawing any connections
08:00
between what is happening to the body politic,
08:02
and what is happening in our leading educational institutions.
08:05
We may be at the top of the list
08:09
when it comes to influencing access to personal wealth.
08:12
We are not even on the list
08:16
when it comes to our responsibility
08:18
for the health of this democracy.
08:21
We are playing with fire.
08:23
You can be sure Jefferson knew
08:26
what he was talking about when he said,
08:28
"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free
08:30
in a state of civilization,
08:34
it expects what never was,
08:36
and never will be."
08:38
(Applause)
08:41
On a more personal note,
08:43
this betrayal of our principles,
08:45
our decency, our hope,
08:47
made it impossible for me
08:49
to avoid the question,
08:51
"What will I say, years from now,
08:54
when people ask, 'Where were you?'"
08:56
As president of a leading liberal arts college,
09:00
famous for its innovative history,
09:02
there were no excuses.
09:05
So the conversation began at Bennington.
09:07
Knowing that if we were to regain
09:10
the integrity of liberal education,
09:12
it would take radical rethinking
09:14
of basic assumptions,
09:16
beginning with our priorities.
09:18
Enhancing the public good becomes a primary objective.
09:21
The accomplishment of civic virtue
09:25
is tied to the uses of intellect and imagination
09:27
at their most challenging.
09:31
Our ways of approaching agency and authority
09:33
turn inside out to reflect the reality
09:37
that no one has the answers
09:41
to the challenges facing citizens in this century,
09:44
and everyone has the responsibility
09:47
for trying and participating in finding them.
09:51
Bennington would continue to teach the arts and sciences
09:55
as areas of immersion that acknowledge differences
09:58
in personal and professional objectives.
10:01
But the balances redressed,
10:04
our shared purposes assume an equal
10:06
if not greater importance.
10:09
When the design emerged it was surprisingly simple and straightforward.
10:11
The idea is to make the political-social challenges themselves --
10:16
from health and education
10:20
to the uses of force --
10:22
the organizers of the curriculum.
10:24
They would assume the commanding role of traditional disciplines.
10:27
But structures designed to connect, rather than divide
10:30
mutually dependent circles,
10:35
rather than isolating triangles.
10:37
And the point is not to treat these topics
10:40
as topics of study,
10:43
but as frameworks of action.
10:45
The challenge: to figure out what it will take
10:47
to actually do something
10:51
that makes a significant and sustainable difference.
10:53
Contrary to widely held assumptions,
10:57
an emphasis on action provides a special urgency to thinking.
11:00
The importance of coming to grips with values like justice,
11:05
equity, truth,
11:10
becomes increasingly evident
11:12
as students discover that interest alone
11:14
cannot tell them what they need to know
11:18
when the issue is rethinking education,
11:21
our approach to health,
11:24
or strategies for achieving
11:26
an economics of equity.
11:28
The value of the past also comes alive;
11:30
it provides a lot of company.
11:34
You are not the first to try to figure this out,
11:36
just as you are unlikely to be the last.
11:39
Even more valuable,
11:42
history provides a laboratory
11:44
in which we see played out
11:46
the actual, as well as the intended
11:49
consequences of ideas.
11:52
In the language of my students,
11:55
"Deep thought matters
11:57
when you're contemplating what to do
11:59
about things that matter."
12:01
A new liberal arts that can support this
12:04
action-oriented curriculum
12:06
has begun to emerge.
12:08
Rhetoric, the art of organizing the world of words
12:10
to maximum effect.
12:14
Design, the art of organizing the world of things.
12:16
Mediation and improvisation
12:21
also assume a special place in this new pantheon.
12:23
Quantitative reasoning attains its proper position
12:28
at the heart of what it takes to manage change
12:31
where measurement is crucial.
12:35
As is a capacity to discriminate
12:37
systematically between what is at the core
12:40
and what is at the periphery.
12:43
And when making connections is of the essence,
12:45
the power of technology emerges with special intensity.
12:48
But so does the importance of content.
12:53
The more powerful our reach,
12:56
the more important the question "About what?"
12:58
When improvisation, resourcefulness, imagination are key,
13:02
artists, at long last,
13:06
take their place at the table,
13:09
when strategies of action are in the process of being designed.
13:11
In this dramatically expanded ideal
13:17
of a liberal arts education
13:19
where the continuum of thought and action is its life's blood,
13:21
knowledge honed outside the academy
13:25
becomes essential.
13:28
Social activists, business leaders,
13:30
lawyers, politicians, professionals
13:33
will join the faculty as active and ongoing participants
13:35
in this wedding of liberal education to the advancement of the public good.
13:40
Students, in turn, continuously move outside the classroom
13:44
to engage the world directly.
13:49
And of course, this new wine
13:52
needs new bottles
13:55
if we are to capture the liveliness and dynamism
13:57
of this idea.
14:01
The most important discovery we made
14:03
in our focus on public action
14:05
was to appreciate that the hard choices
14:08
are not between good and evil,
14:11
but between competing goods.
14:14
This discovery is transforming.
14:17
It undercuts self-righteousness,
14:20
radically alters the tone and character of controversy,
14:22
and enriches dramatically
14:26
the possibilities for finding common ground.
14:28
Ideology, zealotry,
14:31
unsubstantiated opinions simply won't do.
14:33
This is a political education, to be sure.
14:38
But it is a politics of principle,
14:42
not of partisanship.
14:45
So the challenge for Bennington is to do it.
14:47
On the cover of Bennington's 2008 holiday card
14:50
is the architect's sketch of a building
14:54
opening in 2010
14:56
that is to be a center for the advancement
14:58
of public action.
15:00
The center will embody and sustain this new educational commitment.
15:02
Think of it as a kind of secular church.
15:07
The words on the card describe what will happen inside.
15:10
We intend to turn the intellectual
15:14
and imaginative power, passion and boldness
15:16
of our students, faculty and staff
15:19
to developing strategies
15:23
for acting on the critical challenges of our time.
15:25
So we are doing our job.
15:29
While these past weeks have been a time
15:32
of national exhilaration in this country,
15:34
it would be tragic if you thought this meant
15:37
your job was done.
15:40
The glacial silence we have experienced
15:42
in the face of the shredding of the constitution,
15:45
the unraveling of our public institutions,
15:48
the deterioration of our infrastructure
15:51
is not limited to the universities.
15:53
We the people
15:55
have become inured to our own irrelevance
15:57
when it comes to doing anything significant
16:01
about anything that matters
16:03
concerning governance,
16:05
beyond waiting another four years.
16:07
We persist also
16:10
in being sidelined by the idea of the expert
16:13
as the only one capable of coming up with answers,
16:16
despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
16:19
The problem is there is no such thing
16:24
as a viable democracy made up of experts,
16:29
zealots, politicians and spectators.
16:33
(Applause)
16:37
People will continue and should continue
16:44
to learn everything there is to know about something or other.
16:46
We actually do it all the time.
16:49
And there will be and should be
16:52
those who spend a lifetime
16:54
pursuing a very highly defined area of inquiry.
16:56
But this single-mindedness will not yield
17:00
the flexibilities of mind,
17:03
the multiplicity of perspectives,
17:05
the capacities for collaboration and innovation
17:08
this country needs.
17:11
That is where you come in.
17:13
What is certain is that the individual talent
17:15
exhibited in such abundance here,
17:19
needs to turn its attention
17:22
to that collaborative, messy, frustrating,
17:25
contentious and impossible world
17:29
of politics and public policy.
17:32
President Obama and his team
17:34
simply cannot do it alone.
17:37
If the question of where to start seems overwhelming
17:40
you are at the beginning, not the end of this adventure.
17:44
Being overwhelmed is the first step
17:47
if you are serious about trying to get at things that really matter,
17:50
on a scale that makes a difference.
17:54
So what do you do when you feel overwhelmed?
17:57
Well, you have two things.
18:00
You have a mind. And you have other people.
18:03
Start with those, and change the world.
18:06
(Applause)
18:11

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About the speaker:

Liz Coleman - College president
Liz Coleman radically remade Bennington College in the mid-1990s, in pursuit of a new vision: higher education as a performing art.

Why you should listen

If you followed higher education news in the 1990s, you have an opinion on Liz Coleman. The president of what was once the most expensive college in America, Coleman made a radical, controversial plan to snap the college out of a budget and mission slump -- by ending the tenure system, abolishing academic divisions and yes, firing a lot of professors. It was not a period without drama. But fifteen years on, it appears that the move has paid off. Bennington's emphasis on cross-disciplinary, hands-on learning has attracted capacity classes to the small college, and has built a vibrant environment for a new kind of learning.

Coleman's idea is that higher education is an active pursuit -- a performing art. Her vision calls for lots of one-on-one interactions between professor and student, deep engagement with primary sources, highly individual majors, and the destruction of the traditional academic department. It's a lofty goal that takes plenty of hard work to keep on course.

More profile about the speaker
Liz Coleman | Speaker | TED.com