Old Chapel: Liberal Arts Evolution

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.

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  1. Nice support for liberal arts but sorrowfully empty commentary on the issue of college costs today.

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We hope to create a lively discussion on MiddMag.com and invite you to add your voice. Please keep comments civil and relevant to the news item at hand. MiddMag.com may remove comments that do not follow these guidelines.

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