Listen in as author and photographer John Huddleston narrates an audio slideshow of his favorite images from Healing Ground.
A painting is an image, but it is also an object. The image resides in a thin film of pigment bound by a medium, such as egg yolk or oil, to an underlying support: a taut piece of canvas or—in the case of many Western paintings before the late-15th century—a carefully prepared panel of wood.
For most of us, the painting is what we see on the surface, where light reflects the image into our eyes. George Bisacca ’77 sees that same image, but his vision of a painting penetrates more deeply, to the object beneath. As one of the world’s leading conservators of paintings on wood (often called “panel paintings”), Bisacca sees through the paint to the cracks, fissures, worm holes, and clumsy repairs of centuries past—yet he also sees the craftsmanship, history, cultural tradition, and immense beauty of these objects.
In the airy, north-facing conservation studio atop the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Bisacca stands among a dozen paintings. Some need minor repairs, removal of yellowed varnish, cleaning, or minor retouching. Others are in shockingly bad condition.
On a nearby easel stands a large German oil on wood from about 1585, an Annunciation given to the Met last year by a Florentine art dealer. It’s a familiar Christian scene: the angel Gabriel gestures toward a demure Mary, each figure occupying about half the picture. And in the sky above, a bearded figure of God points at her, releasing a dove of peace.
The two halves of the composition are unified by sightlines and gestures—but they are no longer physically joined. The original panel, made of four planks of wood, has bowed and cracked along its three seams; the central seam is so badly compromised that Bisacca decided to separate it entirely. It seems like radical treatment, but now conservators will be able to align the surfaces and adjust the natural curvature of the entire panel. Once the pieces are rejoined, restorers will clean and retouch the damaged surface, being careful to use materials that can be removed later without damaging the original paint. Today’s restorations are largely done in this manner, so that future conservators can reverse this treatment and conserve the painting differently as new science emerges.
There’s a lot of science in modern art conservation. Soon after X-rays were invented, people began using them to investigate works of art, often finding surprises below the visible surface. Bisacca shows me an unfinished portrait of Michelangelo, painted about 1545, when the great artist would have been 70. It’s attributed to a devoted follower, Daniele da Volterra. Yet X-radiography clearly shows that Daniele painted his Michelangelo atop an earlier image of the Holy Family.
With its varnish removed, the portrait looks flat and faded. Bisacca takes a cotton ball, wets it with turpentine, and swipes it across the face of Michelangelo, bringing out the contrast and color, just as a fresh coat of varnish will do. He points to where the ghosts of the older composition can be seen in the unfinished areas, then shows me the back of the painting, which he and his structural team stabilized before the restorers began their work on the painted surface.
X-rays aren’t the only diagnostic tool in the hands of today’s conservators. Infrared reflectrography can reveal an artist’s preparatory drawing, showing how a composition evolves as the artist proceeds. Chemical analysis of paint reveals artists’ techniques and points the way to proper treatments of the surface. And not long ago, Bisacca used a CT scanner to solve a persistent mystery concerning an early Renaissance painting in the Met’s collection.
For a century, art collectors have been hunting down pieces of the Borgo San Sepolcro Altarpiece, painted in the late 1430s by the Sienese artist Sassetta. Like many altarpieces, it consisted of several separate paintings hinged or pinned together. Some were double-sided so that when the altarpiece was “closed,” additional images appeared on the back. Like many old altarpieces, the San Sepolcro was broken up and sold to multiple buyers; the two-sided panels were often sawn in half in cross-section, creating two paintings where there once was just one.
Three central elements of the San Sepolcro altarpiece were found in a Florentine antique shop about 1900 by the famed connoisseur Bernard Berenson, and the hunt has been on for the rest ever since. One supposed member of the set was thought to be in the Metropolitan’s Lehman Collection, yet doubts remained about its attribution.
The problem was that the Met’s painting appeared to be on cypress, while all of the other San Sepolcro candidates were on poplar—including the one thought to be the obverse of the Met painting, a Crucifixion owned by the Cleveland Museum. Met curators were thinking that sometime after the paintings were separated, a cypress backing was laminated to the Met’s thin poplar panel, but they couldn’t prove it. Cutting into its edges to investigate its composition was not an option; it would have been too destructive to the painting and its attached frame.
So, at the suggestion of a colleague, Bisacca took the 17-inch-wide panel downtown to New York University Medical Center, where the CT scanner saw exactly what had been expected all along: a lamination line between two layers of wood—cypress on poplar.
Another key piece of evidence was also found in the scan. The annular lines—tree rings—in the poplar portion of the Met’s painting matched exactly the rings visible on the back of the Cleveland piece. “That put it completely beyond doubt,” Bisacca says. “We proved it.”
Hamlet takes his coffee black. Claudius stalks the salad bar. Polonius can rarely resist dessert. One day, while serving Ophelia her soup, I watch with horror as a few drops of roasted tomato land on the table in front of her, like gobs of blood. She smiles; she doesn’t seem to mind.
At the Vermont campus of the Bread Loaf School of English, everyone—students, faculty and staff, their families, and professional actors in the summer’s annual production—sits down for a meal, three times a day, at long tables in the Inn. I, as a member of the waitstaff, serve them. Most of us are students (some are children of faculty), and only a few in our ranks have any real restaurant experience. The rest of us learn to take orders, carry trays, and pour coffee on the fly. We fake it—we act. Fortunately, we don’t work for tips.
When dinner is over, and we waiters have performed our nightly lines—“All set with that? Coffee or tea for anyone?”—the actors in Hamlet rehearse their own parts in the Burgess Meredith Little Theater. I read in the library nearby and make my nightly pilgrimage to a coffee machine in the Barn. And every night, it seems, Hamlet is roaming around outside the theater, calling, “Mother! Mother!” And Ophelia is bursting out of the double-screen doors, singing and cackling and spinning in circles, mad and loose with grief. Even when I’ve returned to the library, the players’ raucous theatrics and motley instrumentation come through the air like the mist that has already soaked the grass. I learn the pattern of their chants, their hollers and shrieks.
It occurs to me that this is always happening: Hamlet is always happening; all our stories happen over and over, forever. These actors make a temporary echo chamber, bring each scene to life again and again—but isn’t this what is going on in each of our editions, on our very own bookshelves? Crack a spine and all of the characters will come tumbling out, tangled in desperate embraces and grunting, poisonous combat. Or maybe they’re already among us, drinking tea, standing in line. Not just Hamlet and company—everyone. I like to imagine that one night I’ll brush shoulders with a muttering Stephen Dedalus, or hold the door for Clarissa Dalloway, lost in thought.
But something else happens, too: I read my very own life in the pages of a book. “Several of the waiters,” writes Marcel Proust in Within a Budding Grove, “let loose among the tables, were flying along at full speed, each carrying on his outstretched palm a dish which it seemed to be the object of this kind of race not to let fall.” Too true! “Their perpetual course among the round tables yielded, after a time, to the observer the law of its dizzy but ordered circulation.” Am I dizzy on mountain air, or have these worlds converged? Laertes, dead just last night, ordering the chicken; me, rushing the order, flying across the pages of Proust; gunshots and clashing rapiers and the clamor of three hundred clean forks, all sounding somewhere in between fiction, theater and reality.
At the end of the summer, Hamlet runs for five nights. On one of them, I sit with two companions in the middle of a field, where our Adirondack chairs put down sharp moon shadows. Later, I’ll read a closing passage from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves with satisfied melancholy: “But now the head waiter, who has finished his own meal, appears and frowns […] They must go; must put up the shutters, must fold the tablecloths, and give one brush with a wet mop under the tables.” But tonight is for basking in moonlight and drinking wine chilled in wet grass, and listening to the sounds from the theater that come rolling across the darkness: chants, hollers, shrieks. Silence—and then applause.
In 1769, a Spanish exploring party led by Don Gaspar de Portola was sent north from San Diego to establish a fort and mission at Monterey Bay, which had been described 172 years earlier by a passing Spanish seafarer as a “fine harbor sheltered from all winds.” The first whites to see Northern California by land, and suffering greatly from starvation and disease, Portola’s men completely missed Monterey Bay, an open gulf. They overshot by at least 70 miles, but at last sighted the empty land and water that would be called San Francisco and its bay. They returned home thinking they had failed.
The admissions office of the Monterey Institute of International Studies is in a plain one-story adobe house from the historic Mexican period, home to the author John Steinbeck, his second wife, Gwyn, and their infant son, Thom, between November 1944 and April 1945. The Lara-Sota Adobe, he said, was “a house I have wanted since I was a little kid.” The little two-room house was shaded street-side by a massive cypress tree and stood on a quiet street a few hundred yards uphill from bay water. Steinbeck was writing his parable, The Pearl, and its screenplay, in a backyard garden shed in January 1945, when his novel Cannery Row, about colorful down-on-their-luck folk living downwind of Monterey’s sardine factories, was published. The Steinbecks left the adobe for Mexico and the filming of The Pearl and never returned.
Today is the first day of classes of the fall semester, and the admissions staff is resting on laurels, having admitted one of the largest classes—418 students—in Monterey’s 57-year history. With a total student body of 700, 60 percent women, 40 percent men, from 38 countries and speaking 33 native languages, the average student has three years of professional experience before entrance. Amid its pride, on this quiet late-summer day with all the first-day bustle happening elsewhere on campus, the staff is still panged at the loss of its massive shading cypress, felled by snarling chainsaws only a few weeks before after being declared terminal and hazardous; it is said to have been planted over the bones of a child, an early resident in the Mexican period. Chipped and shredded, the cypress is piled in a small mountain in the center of the campus organic garden and has been distributed in all the gardens and beds, sweetening the already scented air.
The campus sits in a gentle, flower-scented, hillside-bungalow neighborhood, punctuated by cypress, cedars, palm trees, live oaks, Japanese maples, and knobcone pines. Gardens proliferate: alongside very old adobe or stone walls topped with terra cotta tiles, narrow stone or redbrick paths thread between buildings and duck below redwood pergolas, past tiny courtyards, bench nooks, planters and pots and gardens of phlox, coast buckwheat, primrose, buckthorn, thimbleberry, fruit-dangling grapevines, a multitude of flowers.
Near the center of campus, in the Samson Student Center Café, many nations’ flags hang from ceiling timber trusses, from the familiar Old Glory, and France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Russia, Egypt, the Philippines, to the less familiar Bhutan, Ghana, Senegal, Thailand, Armenia. Directional signs are pinned to the wall above the cashier station and a Coca-Cola cooler: New Delhi, 7,773 mi; Petra, 6,852 mi.; Madrid, 5,838 mi.; Cairo, 7,512 mi.; London, 5,413 mi; Paris 5,621 mi.; Mexico City, 1,818 mi. In late morning of this first day, the room swells with the sound of young peoples’ banter, a babel of languages, beneath the assembly of flags.
Find a vacant seat in class with Professor Lyuba Zarsky, Public Policy and the Environment. Thirty-four IP majors crowd into a trim, well-appointed, storefront classroom on Pacific Street in McGowan Building; outside the large plate-glass window, busy traffic whizzes by. Many of the students are freshly returned from summer internships or institutes, and from an International Professional Service Semester. Lyuba Zarsky has taught at MIIS for seven years and edited the book Human Rights and the Environment: Conflicts and Norms in a Globalizing World, which will inform this course. She has previous experience—up to 25 years in sustainable development, working with Aborigines in Australia and with an NGO’s a globalization program. She will guide them through discussions of public policy and government functions and through the process of changing norms, to influence laws governing the environment and sustainability.
This being the first class meeting, Zarsky directs students to break into pairs, interview each other about their backgrounds, and then introduce their partner to the class. For 10 minutes, 34 avid, intelligent, and confident graduate students look into the eyes of their partners and digest their lives, filling the room’s air with warm talk. Justin Wright (Middlebury ’08) turns to a classmate to report of his landscaping and carpentry work in Hawaii, Arizona, and Northern California, and how living near mountain-fast Lake Tahoe, witnessing the pressures on the environment brought to bear by wealth, power, and development, led him straight to MIIS to pursue public policy. His classmate, Rainey, has been working as a translator, most recently at the London Olympics, where the beach volleyball competition commanded much attention.
Faculty Authors’ Section—10 shelves—William Tell Coleman Library, a bright and modern, two-story facility. Pull titles at random: Green Planet Blues: Environmental Politics from Stockholm to Kyoto; Bringing Women In: Women’s Issues in International Development Programs; Terrorism and Homeland Security: Thinking Russia’s Revolution from Above, 1985-2000: Reform, Transition, and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime; Strategically about Policy; The Interpreter’s Companion; Leadership in English Language Education: Theoretical Foundations and Practical Skills for Changing Times; The Human Genome Project and Minority Communities: Ethical, Political, and Social Dilemmas; Translators’ Strategies and Creativity; American Lake: Nuclear Peril in the Pacific. Adjacent are five shelves dedicated to the life and career of General Joseph “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell, the brilliant, abrasive maverick who served in the Army in China, Burma, and India before and during World War II. Nearby is a lifelike bust of the general, with his prominent ears and thin Yankee nose. Stilwell’s two daughters, who settled near the family home in Carmel, were long associated with the Monterey Institute of International Studies; Nancy Stilwell Easterbrook, born in China and a longtime trustee of MIIS, and her sister, artist Alison Stilwell Cameron, are themselves memorialized outside the Coleman Library in a flower garden with thankful plaques from the many Chinese scholarship students they supported at Monterey.
At the Holland Center, a photo exhibition overlooks tables for ping-pong and foosball. The pictures are the work of Peter Grothe—former adjunct professor and emeritus director of International Student Programs, who died in June 2012, at the age of 81. All are close-up portraits of mostly young people, an international panoply of children from a lifetime of world travels; the faces brighten a dim and temporarily empty gathering spot.
In early 1960, as adviser to Minnesota Democratic senator Hubert H. Humphrey, Peter Grothe drafted the language of a foreign-aid bill and proposed an entity he called “The Peace Corps.” Later that season, Humphrey gave the idea to the Presidential nominee, John F. Kennedy. Young Grothe wrote Kennedy’s proposing speech and later served in the first “class” of Peace Corps volunteers, assigned to Ethiopia. At Monterey for 31 years, Grothe taught cross-cultural communications and American politics, and recruited in more than 40 countries, greatly increasing international student enrollment. In the student lounge, beneath Grothe’s colorful assemblage of international amity, the pool cues rest on the tables like crossed and put-away swords, and the rows of foosball combatants are, at least for the moment, at rest.
Up behind the Holland Center, grounds super Kirk Eckhardt (who, with his build, could be a younger stand-in for the actor Nick Nolte) is tending a row of tall, stupendous flowering vines that most people would not notice unless they left the traveled way and peeked at an obscure wall, when he is startled by the sight of a wounded deer hiding in the foliage. It seems to have been injured by a car. He calls the wildlife rescue truck for the Monterey County SPCA. It glides discretely up a driveway, and the veterinarian eyeballs the deer before mixing a sedative so the deer can be rescued. Graduate students sit studying and checking e-mail in a nearby courtyard, blissfully unmindful of the little drama unfolding just a few yards away.
The McGowan Building contains the Monterey Terrorism Research and Education Program, the East Asia Nonproliferation Program, and the Chemical and Biological Weapons Nonproliferation Program. Framed decorative posters spied on the second floor: Middle East maps, informational posters on botulism toxin and the dangers of ingesting alpha emitters, and two vintage U.S. government wanted posters—offering a $5 million reward for Osama Bin Laden. It is eerily quiet. Not wishing to wait for the elevator, one takes the stairs to another floor.
One flight above, in a crowded little seminar room, Professor Jeff Langholz is holding the first meeting of Environmental Conflict Management, studying the role of environmental factors in conflicts and international security. Langholz’s research focuses on biodiversity conservation and sustainable development; he worked for the Environmental Protection Agency for five years on toxic waste policy, trained and practiced extensively as a mediator, and has taught a version of this course at MIIS for 13 years. Today’s simulation exercise explores a multination conflict over an imagined watercourse, the Zihum River, which forms borders of five neighboring nations. The students break into five groups, following a process Langholz has directed 5 times at The Hague, 7 times in the Middle East, and 4 times each in Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and North America. The conclusion will underscore the importance of earned trust, transparency, flexibility, and most of all, enlightened self-interest. “It pays,” the professor says, “to cooperate.” There have been shouting matches, tears, and walkouts in his mediation exercises in the Real World, but at MIIS, working step-by-step toward an Ideal World, there is teamwork, reason, receptivity, and comprehension. Jeff Langholz’s article about this exercise rests on 100 case histories and will be published soon.
Screeching gulls perch atop the tiled roof of the neighboring AT&T building, echoing on the walls of the Monterey Institute. One may stand on tiptoes on the ringing second-floor balcony of the Morse Building, as a multicolored congress of national flags on their flagpoles waves in the breeze, and one can glimpse a smidgen of Monterey Bay. Toward the end of this first day of classes, four graduate students wander downtown to the water and Fisherman’s Wharf. They gaze at a heap on a wooden float moored to the whale-watching center: 25 sea lions of varying tonnage sprawl in a companionate pile. One meditatively scratches his side with a broad flipper. He grunts. Thirty yards away on a bobbing white skiff, two pelicans supervise the harbor.
With the presidential election looming, and our challenges more complex and global than ever, the state of public discourse in America is in crisis. Where there should be clear choices, anger and antipathy prevail. Partisan considerations trump common sense and cooperation. Compromise is a dirty word. Clear discussions of policy alternatives are buried beneath an avalanche of political positioning and negative ads. Information is overwhelmed by accusation.
We can do better than this.
What the public needs and should demand is serious, fact-driven discussion about real-world problems. Yet real facts are hard to come by in our political discourse. Some candidates and pundits actually disparage the facts. What’s going on? The causes and culprits are all around us.
Too many elected and aspiring leaders feed a vicious circle of assertion and accusation as they frame policy debates as black-and-white choices, simple problems with simple solutions. The media create a peculiar echo chamber; partisan shout fests too often trump the role of consistent fact provider. Interest groups pile on, heaving money, producing more attack ads, and making more claims than the public can ever hope to digest.
Believing that people want an alternative to this depressing dynamic, I started Face the Facts USA with philanthropist Ed Scott. We were determined to find a way to present fundamental facts creatively and memorably but without spin or bias. We wanted the facts to be accompanied by context and informed discussion.
Based at George Washington University, where I head the School of Media and Public Affairs, the project is powered by a tiny staff and a dedicated group of students, (It also has a bipartisan advisory group that counts Bill Delahunt ’63 and Jim Douglas ’72 among its members.) We release a fact a day in subject areas that relate to the economy, national security, education, and other issues.
The experiment is meeting with great success. Diverse media organizations from McClatchy-Tribune, Huffington Post, and Newsmax, to PBS, Journal-Register, and Voxxi are now distributing the facts. Their enthusiasm suggests these relationships are born of something more than convenience. There is a genuine hunger and appreciation for what we are doing—facing the facts every day.
I have been in journalism since my days at Middlebury. From a small radio station in Springfield, Vermont, to the Voice of America, the Associated Press and CNN, I have had the great privilege to travel the world, cover historic events, meet amazing people, and tell stories, hoping always to inform along the way. But I am deeply worried by the political and media noise machines around us. In too many places, we are polarized and paralyzed.
There is no easy fix to the depressing reality of America’s sound-bite culture and political gridlock. But the status quo is unacceptable. Facts matter. They are where we should start. And as Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously observed, “You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.”
It is my hope that this project, driven largely by young people who have the most to gain—or lose—can contribute to our national discourse.
Yes, we can do better. We have to.
Frank Sesno ’77 is Director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at The George Washington University. He served as CNN White House Correspondent, anchor and Washington Bureau Chief. He graduated from Middlebury College with a degree in American History and served as a trustee of the College from 1994-2004. Sign up for your fact a day at www.facethefactsusa.org.
On the eve of the fall semester, President Liebowitz issued an exhaustive 11-page report to the faculty that was as bold and provocative in its thinking as it was ambitious in its length. In it, he addressed the evolving nature of a liberal arts education—specifically its cost and relevance. We spoke to the president about his ideas.
Let’s start with cost and relevance. . .
Well, I think there’s a tipping point beyond which people sit up and take notice about what they are paying for. And while I believe that a liberal arts education is priceless in the greater scheme and long-term view of things, people don’t always have the capacity and luxury to think long term, especially coming out of the worst recession in a century. I think more people have been paying more attention to cost, value, and relevance. And that’s why I wanted to address this issue.
What are some of the cost implications?
Wage and salaries represent about half of all of our costs. And we have significant fixed costs related to our infrastructure. So we have to take a look at how we deploy our staffing based on what we feel is the most important pedagogy, and where that pedagogy is absolutely essential and where it is a luxury.
As we think about a Middlebury education, we have to acknowledge that one of the most important reasons students come here is because of the personalized approach to learning that one will get, the opportunities to engage faculty who are committed to undergraduate teaching and who understand that the core mission of Middlebury College is undergraduate education.
But let’s step back and ask if that means students have to have that 100 percent of the time. If you look at a student who has gotten the most out of a Middlebury education, what does his or her four years look like? How much of it is really one-and-one instruction, how much of it is really in small seminars? Hopefully a large part of it, but it’s certainly not the entire part. So before we think about continuing to do what we have done as we have done it, we have to step back and ask, “Might there be another way?”
Let me give you one example that is illustrative of the opportunities we have (and it shows why we have a comparative advantage over our peers): Our Chinese department is second-to-none in teaching Chinese language, literature, and culture. It is remarkable both in its rigor and how our students emerge four years later with a fluency and a sensitivity to the culture of the language that they are studying. At the same time, we hear repeated commentary about the department’s narrow course offerings at the senior seminar level from students who have returned from studying abroad at our sites in China; [these offerings] reflect the professional experience and expertise from a relatively small number of faculty. The students see too few opportunities to apply their Chinese language capabilities to contemporary issues. So instead of hiring two more faculty in the Chinese department to cover China’s economy or Chinese-U.S. relations, in Chinese, why not tap into our existing resources in China, at our sites in Kunming, Hangzhou, and Beijing, where we cover environmental sciences (Kunming), the arts (Hangzhou), and the social sciences (Beijing)?Why not tie in classes that are going on in Beijing with classes at Middlebury? An 8:30 p.m. seminar in Beijing would be an 8:30 a.m. class for Chinese majors in Middlebury.
We’ve hired the faculty to teach our students in Beijing, and now we can have that course in two places using videoconferencing and technology that didn’t exist three to five years ago. The ability to bring in expertise from our 38 sites around the world presents this kind of opportunity for us in multiple languages across many disciplines. And so without ever increasing the size of our faculty, we can expand our curriculum significantly and provide important new opportunities to our students. And that’s just one area we can think about a little bit differently.
So, tell us more about untapped potential . . .
Well, despite having great educational resources such as the language schools (since 1915), BLSE (since 1920), and schools abroad (1949), they have largely existed in a vacuum. They have served separate cohorts of students, with occasional overlaps with our undergraduates, but only recently. These programs represent untapped resources for the College. The challenge we face now is rationalizing—leveraging, if you will—these resources to the benefit of our core mission, which is undergraduate education. Which is to say, if these programs produce financial surpluses for the College, great. If they provide important and unique educational opportunities to our undergraduate students, then even better. So a lot of my attention is given to strengthening this network of educational programs to the benefit of the entire institution, and especially our undergraduate students. It’s time we capitalized on these long-standing programs.
What role do you see technology playing?
For a period of our history, our isolated location was a great benefit. It was an oasis of sorts, an escape from noise, a place where students could come and have a contemplative four years immersed in their studies. But the world has changed dramatically since those times. I don’t think students can afford to be totally checked out, isolated from what’s going on in the rest of the world for four years, and then jump in when they graduate.
Technology is a great leveler. Even for those students who go abroad—and that’s 55 to 60 percent of our student body—technology will still be key, because it will allow students to stay connected after they return. It also is a way in which faculty can rethink pedagogy. Collaborative learning and accessing information instantaneously have become so important. Technology plays a role in how faculty can do so much more than the standard 50-minute lecture three times a week. But we have to be smart. There’s good technology and there’s not-so-good technology, technology for the lazy and bored. We don’t want that. We want to retain our focus on undergraduate education, human contact, but that’s not mutually exclusive from finding ways technology can enhance that experience.
How might the curriculum evolve?
Students being learned in the classics and foundations of the liberal arts should not change. It’s crucial that students learn fundamentals from Western and Eastern texts. Those are building blocks to understanding the human condition, and they don’t lose their relevance.
However, when you talk about the organization of the curriculum, and you divide things by, say, the regional division of the world (Asian studies, African studies, Latin American studies, etc.) it assumes that the old order—state institutions—play the most significant role in world affairs. If we learned anything since 9/11, we learned how non-state actors are becoming more and more important. So, we need to think about how this kind of change alters how we organize, at the least, our international curriculum and also how we view “the world.” And then there are the ways disciplines have evolved. It’s tidy to say “I’m a biologist” or “I’m a chemist,” but what’s happening in between the established disciplines is, in many ways, as significant and exciting, if not more. Then again, graduate schools continue to produce PhDs almost solely within disciplines. So it’s tricky. But it’s worth examining what we learn, how we learn it, and what constitutes knowledge in today’s world. Just because something has been done a certain way doesn’t mean it should always be done that way.
Also, we need to set our expectations for what students need to know. What represents the best launching pad for students not only to get a fundamental base in a liberal arts education, but also best prepares them to thrive in the world?
This leads to how our students learn . . .
I’d like to think of a Middlebury education as being a sum of all the parts, and that they all support one another, rather than being perceived to be in competition with one another. So it’s not a zero sum game, but rather a summation game.
Now, there is a risk of charlatanism when students get involved superficially in a number of disciplines. But through projects like the Solar Decathlon or the “Hydrogen tractor” winter term course taught by two alums last year or MiddCORE, we see examples of where you have a superb academic experience in the classroom supporting and being supported by what students are doing outside the classroom. And that’s an important aspect of today’s liberal arts education.
Though I understand it, I don’t necessarily believe it’s in the best interest of our students that during the past 25 years, we have become so focused on excellence in the classroom, we have devoted less attention to what students are doing outside of class. We as a faculty need to see how life outside the classroom is a crucial element of a Middlebury education.
What about the evolution of the student body?
Diversity of life experience and diversity of thought are the two most important things in creating a vibrant learning environment. If we manage to bring together students of different world experiences and of different thought—political, social, cultural—it will enrich the educational environment significantly.
I started teaching here in 1984 and seemed free to make statements in my political geography class that 15, 16 years later would have been challenged by students whose life experiences would have rendered my positions and my lectures dated and, well, provincial. We now have students from more than 75 countries, so to speak about international development or dictatorships or freedom of speech takes on a very different character when people who have experienced a very different system or lifestyle can say, “Wait a minute, what about this perspective?” That’s what we try to do here: provide different viewpoints so as to stretch our students’ understanding and comfort levels as they study across the liberal arts.
If we successfully answer the relevance concern, does that solve the cost issue as well?
Partially, yes. It buys us time. But we can’t assume a five or six percent growth in the cost of a college education forever. So we need to work on both. We have to make “the relevance case” more strongly in order to attract and retain the best students, and we have to address cost before we lose too large a segment of the population who believes it would be impossible to finance a Middlebury education.