Liberal Arts Education and Talents for the New CenturyMPCC-UIC Presidential Lecture 2008
Beijing Normal University-Hong Kong Baptist University
United International College
Zhuhai, P.R. China
November 17, 2008
In 2005 journalist Tom Friedman published a brilliant best-selling book entitled The World is Flat. The title was, of course, a clever metaphor for the enormous changes being brought about by a technological evolution that, coupled with geopolitical shifts, was leveling the global economic playing field. The fact that technology has enabled anyone in the world with access to it to connect with anyone else in the world is giving birth to an era in which boundaries between nation-states no longer define global economic or political forces. He calls it a new phase of globalization, and it defines this new century.
In his most recent book, published just this year, Friedman builds on his original thesis about the global economy by including two other powerful forces that are shaping this new global century – global warming and population growth. Hence the title: Hot, Flat, and Crowded. In it, he details how the convergence of those three forces is likely to create unprecedented challenges to the quality of life for generations to come. There is the growing demand for energy and natural resources; because of that, a massive transfer of wealth from oil consuming to oil rich countries; disruptive climate change; loss of biodiversity and even sharper divisions between energy “have” and “have not” nations.
Each of our countries, China and the U.S., is large and powerful – with enormous influence over world affairs. As Parang Khanna argues in his widely regarded book, The Second World: Empires and Influences in the New Global Order, the U.S. is competing along with the world’s other two superpowers: China and the E.U. – each with different strategies for influencing other remaining nations – particularly the ones he describes as “second world” countries. What is clear is that the U.S. no longer dominates the world order. The global challenges we face cannot be managed by any one of us acting alone, and certainly not on our own terms.
Khanna is really making the case for what the U.S. must do, not to regain its hegemony, but rather “to set in motion a virtuous circle of policies that lead to global equilibrium rather than a balance of power.” Both of these books, Khanna’s and Friedman’s, were published before the scale and complexity of the current world-wide economic crisis had become evident. That painful reality has served to reinforce their arguments.
What I want to do today is to draw a different conclusion from the premises of these two authors. I want to ask: in this hot, flat, crowded world in which neither of our nations has the capability on its own to create, let alone dictate, solutions – what is the best way to educate the generation that will have to tackle these problems? What is the talent they will need and how will we nurture it?
In this fundamentally new world the scope of the challenges and the consequences of failure are unprecedented and dire. Many of our brightest young people in the U.S. – who are eager to grab hold of what they perceive to be shrinking opportunities to succeed – focus on programs that appear to provide them with the clearest possible path to success. That is by focusing on scientific and technical skills as well as business. Ironically, that strategy will put them into direct competition with young people in China and India who are even more focused and determined.
It is in this context that a very interesting and very surprising convergence has occurred in higher education in the U.S. The recognition that we must educate our daughters and sons for new competition in this new era has led to the rediscovery of a very old notion of what constitutes an educated person. It is the discovery that Dr. Kowk has brought to the founding of UIC. It turns out that the fundamental aims of a liberal arts education are precisely what is called for.
At its core, liberal education has always been concerned with cultivating intellectual and ethical judgment, helping students comprehend and negotiate relations to the larger world, and preparing them for lives of civic responsibility. It was education suited for the needs of our country’s elite.
But that tradition has not been static – particularly as it became the foundation for what a much broader range of citizens needed to prepare them for meaningful employment and participation in an increasingly complex, multicultural society. So we added new pedagogies and new curricula that engaged students on many levels, that explored connections between disciplines, and that explicitly addressed the role of culture in shaping learning. However, as the liberal arts became more widely incorporated into college curricula, it became less recognized as such or explicitly valued. It was either taken for granted or incorporated into checklists of course options that did not necessarily add up to an intentional program. And little effort was made to assess whether its aims were really achieved.
In survey after survey, employers who are asked about the most important skills they are seeking in new hires do not cite knowledge (specific expertise). What they are looking for is team work skills, critical thinking/reasoning, oral/written communication, the ability to assemble and organize information; innovative thinking/creativity.
Two authors from Harvard and MIT (Frank Levy and Richard Murnane) have recently argued that there are two real “skill differentiators” in the 21st century (that is ones that set apart leaders/high performers). The first is expert thinking by which they mean the ability to identify and solve problems for which there is no routine solution. The second is complex communication: persuading, explaining, negotiating, gaining trust, building understanding. Both are the special province of the liberal arts.
What we are doing at Concordia is reinvigorating the liberal arts, being very intentional about how we present them in the curriculum, and putting them to “work” by focusing on the real problems we face in this new world. We have identified five goals for our program of liberal learning which should sound very familiar to you, very close to what you call “whole person education.” They are: instilling a love of learning; helping students acquire foundational intellectual skills and capacities; ensuring that students understand and can integrate multiple perspectives; motivating students to lead an “examined life” with self-understanding and ethical convictions; and finally, leading students to active and responsible participation in local, national, and global communities. Our work has earned us a position among a leadership group of American colleges and universities working to instill these objectives across American higher education.
We have also taken a concept that is at the heart of the religious tradition in which our college was founded and made it central to our work. It can be applied to any educational system that aims to produce more than brilliant scientists or technicians or successful business people. We call this concept “vocation” and its meaning is derived from the Latin root of the word: vocare – to call. Thus we prepare students to respond to their calling. We believe that we are “called” by God to know ourselves – including our beliefs and values – and to use our capacities to serve something beyond ourselves – our society, the world. Our greatest leaders were servants of the public who understood their lives not as a quest for personal gain but rather for the greater good. We use the term “servant leaders.” These leaders had a sense of purpose, a focus that transcended their individual gain. They recognized that they had a personal stake in public problems.
At Concordia we give explicit emphasis to our “vocation” as a liberal arts college, which is to play a direct role in developing the leaders for the 21st century. We accomplish that by what we teach students as well as by how we do it.
One well-known writer on the subject has found a large and hungry audience among faculty in the U.S. Parker Palmer explores what he calls the “inner landscape of a teacher’s life” in The Courage to Teach. His premise is that “teaching is an intentional act of creating the conditions for students to learn.” Unlike many other professions, he says, teaching “is always done at the dangerous intersection of personal and public life.” He challenges those of us who teach to do what he himself eventually did and that is to reject the “self-protective split of personhood from practice (who we are from what we do) which “is encouraged by an academic culture that distrusts personal truth.” Instead he says we need to “reclaim our hearts for the sake of our students, ourselves and educational reform.”
To accomplish this, faculty will have to think of themselves first as teacher of young people and secondly as teacher of a particular subject matter. This is a revolutionary message for an academic culture that worships at the altar of objectivity and, as such, is built on distance from our subjects, our students and ourselves. No, he says, good teaching must spring from our deepest and most genuine selves, and furthermore, it must connect with the “inward, living core of our students’ lives.”
Good teachers cultivate what philosopher Martha Nussbaum has called “compassionate imagination,” the capacity to imagine what it would look and feel like to live in someone else’s shoes. To accomplish these tasks our faculty must embrace new pedagogical methods.
Today’s students use technology to communicate with other people and connect to information, and they expect it to happen via images as well as text and very quickly. However, the fact that they have near instantaneous access to information does not help them to evaluate it as true or reliable nor does it enable them to know what to do with it.
What is fascinating about this age of information technology is that teaching and learning no longer require expensive libraries or even expensive laboratory equipment. What it does require from students is learning how to learn, and that dramatically alters the role of the teacher. Instead of teaching a subject (which we already know at an expert level), or in addition to it, we must teach students to learn. And that requires much more imagination, creativity, and old fashioned hard work than most of us are accustomed to investing in the process.
I propose that it is very much easier to summon the energy and determination to do that if we understand our role to be broader, richer and more profoundly impactful than as a transmitter of information or a teacher of well-defined skills or methods – if we think of ourselves as helping students to be prepared, not just for a career, but for their vocation.
In sum, there is an exciting convergence taking place in higher education between the recognition that we must educate students for leadership in this new global century and our rediscovery of the liberal arts as the best way to do this. And there is an equally exciting one between our recognition of what this requires of us as teachers with what many of us have always perceived as our calling – the idealistic impulses that drove us to this occupation in the first place.
What is even more exciting to me is another delightfully ironic convergence that one of the world’s oldest and most revered educational systems should form a partnership with one of the world’s newest around a common vision for developing leaders for this bold new century. We are very impressed with the students from UIC who are on our campus this year. They are actively engaged in their education and in the campus community. They wanted me to share their first impressions with you. They say they love (in the order that they mentioned them): ice cream; the fact that people smile and say ‘hi’; the size of the classes which foster conversation and feedback; encountering students from different cultures and how that stimulates them to be critical and creative.
Even with that wise assessment of the value of this educational exchange, I am not sure that your students – or ours – can yet appreciate the potential impact of this venture. But we see it, and we are energized by your vision and your invitation of partnership.