One of education’s great aims is to help students see beyond a world of black-and-white and to perceive and be comfortable with the various shades of gray surrounding us. We teach our students to consider ambiguities in scientific, historical, moral, and many other forms of reasoning; in artistic critique; in the digital worlds we all now inhabit.
And yet, ironically, we still encounter black-and-white perceptions within the world of higher education. One particularly tenacious perception is the difference between the aims of a liberal arts institution and those of a research university. I spoke to a prominent foundation leader who had recently led a meeting between faculty and administrators from liberal arts colleges and research universities, and he said, “Despite their good intentions, everyone still stereotyped the other side, and we at the foundation still had to interpret each side to the other.”
These stereotypes he referred to are ones we encounter all the time: liberal arts colleges are only about teaching and universities are only about research. Universities are supposedly filled with professors who have little time for their undergraduates’ needs. Professors divide their attention between their graduate students and their research—with the classroom a distant third in their priorities. Liberal arts professors, on the other hand, supposedly spend all their time teaching and never think about research. They seldom look up from their pedagogical tasks to engage the outside world, and they’re not committed to intellectual inquiry except as character formation for the young.
But counterevidence of these stereotypes exists all around us. Universities house extraordinary teachers who frequently are also top researchers in their fields. And, as you will read in this issue of Middlebury Magazine, liberal arts colleges have extraordinary researchers active in their fields and pushing the boundaries of knowledge in exciting ways. Nowhere is this more true than at Middlebury College.
Indeed, I believe liberal arts colleges have the potential to rethink and reclaim some of the original purposes of research. So many researchers I have known in higher
education—no matter the institutional context—have said to me, “What I really wish I could work on is this question, not the question I know will be funded or the question the current trends in the field suggest I ask.”
Because research foundations don’t drive the funding structure of liberal arts colleges, researchers in liberal arts often can work on research without being burdened by its “fundability.” They’re not constrained by intellectual fashions, nor the ability of their inquiries to fulfill the common good. While all institutions have to pay attention to questions of funding, larger intellectual contexts, and peer review, liberal arts institutions exist in a space that encourages independence from trends—and thus, creativity.
In addition, because we often exist in smaller, more intense communities of inquiry, we have opportunities to think about and conduct interdisciplinary research in exciting ways. And because we work in closer proximity to other disciplines than do our peers in research universities, we’re generally much more interdisciplinary in our classrooms—something we can take advantage of in our research as well.
Finally, the research we conduct can be more responsive to the questions of local concerns. It’s no accident that alumni, students, and townspeople collaborated on the hydrogen-powered tractor created one winter term. Nor is it an accident that the levels of toxicity in our region’s lake water concern students in our School of the Environment and our science classes. And it’s no accident that some of our classics professors teach students to research the ancient world in part by bringing them to the Vermont legislature to see the continuity of certain democratic traditions.
Research can and should be a vibrant part of our lives in an institution like Middlebury
College. What’s more, Middlebury can be a place for a different kind of research that inspires colleagues at different kinds of institutions in higher education—and that breaks stereotypes along the way.
Patton can be reached at email@example.com.