The Tenth President of Sarah Lawrence College

The Future of Liberal Education

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river, and he is not the same man.”—Heraclitus

Dean Pauline Watts introduced the Inaugural symposium, “You Can’t Step into the Same River Twice: Reimagining Liberal Arts in the 21st Century,” by describing how liberal arts education, like the proverbial river, is both eternally the same and continually evolving.

“Our understandings and practices of the liberal arts have changed rapidly at certain points in time as they responded to historical moments of dramatic change in education and culture,” Watts said. “We seem now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, to be living in such a historical moment. Or are we? Is it change? Or is it the illusion of change?”

The panelists—three college presidents and one distinguished neuroscientist—identified several challenges and opportunities facing liberal education today.

Democracy and Community: Nancy Cantor ’74, Chancellor and President of Syracuse University

One of the things we all read about a lot right now is the culture of individualism. That is, in the sense in which education is a private investment for private gain, and pits individuals in a sort of zero-sum competition for a place at the table in this so-called flat-world knowledge economy. We see this as the subtext of so many national debates on affirmative action, on immigration, on global security, and more.

What I would argue is that in this environment, questions of social justice and moral consideration are all too easily marginalized, and communal responsibility is relegated to some corner of political correctness. My question for all of us, as we think about the role of a liberal arts college, is how do we put communal responsibility back in its rightful, central place—in the place it’s got to be if we are to recover our democratic practices?

Benjamin Franklin, right before signing the Declaration of Independence, said, “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.” When I think about what I learned at Sarah Lawrence, sure, it’s about the sciences and the arts and the humanities. But at its core, it’s really about learning to hang together.

Environment: Ralph F. Hexter, President of Hampshire College

On a worldwide basis, we have environmental problems. I have tried to understand sustainability not only in terms of resources and the environment, but also to signify the future continuous. We need to prepare and enable futures that can themselves have futures. We need to do so not just merely in sciences, but across the curriculum and across every sphere of activity.

We cannot have the freedom to pursue the areas of the intellect, the arts and sciences, unless we take seriously our responsibility to the globe. So for me, the twenty-first century must recover what I call the reverse of freedom, the other side of the coin, which, I believe, is responsibility.

Integrating Science and Art: W. Ian Lipkin ’74, Professor of Epidemiology, Neurology, and Pathology at Columbia University

Why should scientists study humanities and arts? On Monday I joined a small think tank of editors at Nature magazine to discuss what makes a contribution worthy of placement in the top tier of the world’s scientific output. While two of my peers focused on the reproducibility of the experiments and the extent to which those experiments support the authors’ conclusions, I argued that facts were essential but not sufficient. The best papers also tell a story. They have twists and turns and surprises. And this requires a very different sort of viewpoint on things than most scientists bring to their work. This requires creativity and clarity in thought and presentation. What could be better training in storytelling for a scientist than a liberal arts education?

Now what about the flip side? What about art? Art ultimately boils down to perception and interpretation. This is the grist of neuroscience. Economic and social decisions are informed by models that have their basis in observations deemed significant either through formal statistical analyses or informal ones. The sooner we appreciate that science is the foundation of the way we move through and appreciate the world, the more efficient we can be in realizing our dreams.

Social Justice: Beverly Daniel Tatum, President of Spelman College

We must ask if our learning environments create opportunities for practicing the behaviors required in an effective democracy. And what is the relationship between wisdom and social justice? In my mind, you cannot have one without the other. There is no wisdom in inequity. Justice-seeking requires the recognition of multiple perspectives and the opportunity for thoughtful reflection and dialogue. A society riven by deep divisions is hard pressed to provide meaningful justice to all its citizens.

If civic relationships are characterized by segregation, strangeness, and an assumption that some of us come from cultures that are intrinsically inferior, how is it possible to respond appropriately to the moral and social circumstances of one another? Again, how do we create the opportunities for reflection, integration, and application of ideas that lead to greater self knowledge and social understanding, that help students gain perspective and a greater recognition of the interdependence that necessarily exists within communities?

As we think about liberal education, we are confronted by both dangers and opportunities. We have the opportunity created by the great diversity within our student body. And yet we have the danger that they come with preconceptions that have not been challenged by their previous learning experiences, and may or may not come to understand that idea of collective responsibility without our active intervention.

Q and A The Odyssey Meet the Lawrences