Inauguration Panel—"The Liberal Arts: Privilege and Responsibility"

Diana Chapman Walsh
October 26, 2003

I’m honored to be part of this special day, an historic occasion for Amherst and for higher education. President Marx’s assignment to me for this occasion was to bring something of the sciences to this distinguished panel, whose other members have all played important roles in his life.

I know that because the presidential search committee talked to my co-panelists when we were sizing Tony up as a prospect for the presidency. And as you might deduce from the fact that he is here, and they are here, those conversations confirmed our very strong sense that this man has in abundance the gifts of intellect, character, energy and spirit—and the record of accomplishment—that would make him one of the great Amherst presidents.

So I’m the member of the panel who has known this president for the shortest period of time—and yet I know him with a particular type of grounded certainty that can come out of an intense and successful search, and did out of this one, which was exceedingly intense and manifestly successful.

When he invited me to join this panel, President Marx gave me license to approach the topic however I wanted—always a good move for a new president with a trustee. But on thinking about the occasion, it seemed to me that he was really posing the question contained in the magnificent speech that John F. Kennedy delivered here at Amherst 40 years ago today, and which Tony recalled in his magnificent inaugural address this morning.

As we’ve heard, Kennedy pointedly asked Amherst then—and we are asking ourselves again on this historic day—“What good is a private college or university unless it is serving a great national purpose?” And if we take that as our challenge for this afternoon, then my task is to examine what great national purpose Amherst is now, and can in the future be, serving in the sciences.

That broad question involves two reciprocal questions, stated simply: What can the sciences do for Amherst? And what can Amherst do for the sciences? (We know which of the two Kennedy would have wanted us to ask, but we’ll ask them both.)

What Can the Sciences Do for Amherst?

The simplest answer to our first question—what can the sciences do for Amherst?—is another question, namely whether any of us can reasonably consider ourselves liberally educated if we lack at least a rudimentary grounding in the scientific and technological advances that are quite literally transforming our world every day. What a strong presence in the sciences can do for Amherst, then, is ensure that every Amherst graduate is in truth liberally educated.

The fact that we are living in the golden age of science (especially biology) for all of recorded civilization surely imposes responsibilities on an institution aspiring to provide a broad and deep education intended to equip its students as future citizens—and most especially those destined by their privilege (so Kennedy reminded us) to be leaders. Surely we, and they, have a responsibility to master the exploding knowledge about the natural and physical world sufficiently that they can participate meaningfully in high-stakes policy debates.

There are profound ethical questions that are not even being asked, much less answered, about the promises and perils of the new technologies (such as genetic manipulations that can radically expand life expectancy), and those questions are going to proliferate and escalate as the technologies advance. We have tools that far surpass our wisdom to manage them. The pragmatic need for greater technical expertise among the nation’s citizenry is reason enough to view competence in the sciences as essential to a liberal education.

In addition, though, science has a powerful pedagogic claim to make. The ancient root of the word science is scientia, or knowledge. Science education has always been education for knowing. Originally under the rubric of “natural philosophy,” the sciences were not seen as divorced from the humanities or other systems of logical thought. Like philosophy and mathematics, the natural sciences involved testing propositions systematically, and also involved asking Socrates’s first question of ethics: “How should we live?”

Study of the sciences teaches analytic thinking, explicitly encourages and reinforces reasoning quantitatively, requires testing ideas against experimental feedback. It teaches that imperfection is an integral part of learning and enables students to participate in the process of revising, discovering and optimizing.

If the project of a liberal education, as I believe, is to learn to think for oneself, to think critically, to examine oneself and one’s deep beliefs, to bring one’s inner reality into alignment with a world “out there,” to honor the humanity and diversity of others and to find one’s own home in the world, then what better point of departure than Einstein’s dictum that “no experiment can ever prove me right, and a single experiment can always prove me wrong”?

In a climate of clashing world views and endless arguments from emotion and received wisdom, grounding in the scientific method provides students a framework they can use throughout their lives to distinguish between an argument and a harangue. It teaches a way to assess the objective world that exists independently of themselves and counters the fundamentalist claim that “my ‘reality’ is equal to your ‘reality,’ and I don’t have to open my closed system of thinking to expose it to yours if doing so makes me uncomfortable or causes me inconvenience.” That sort of anti-intellectualism cuts the very ground out from under a liberal education, and the scientific method, practiced artfully and with respect for the social context, can shore it back up.

And science education has led the way in integrating into undergraduate education significant hands-on research experiences. In that, the sciences can be seen as the ultimate expression of the true scholar-teacher model that defines a small liberal arts college. The focus on research, inherent in science teaching, is being brought now to the social sciences and even the humanities.

So, for those and other reasons (including the simple beauty and delight of deep engagement with the sciences), I think we can safely say that a robust program in the sciences has much to offer a liberal arts education.

What Can Amherst Do for the Sciences?

But what of our reciprocal question—what Amherst can do for the sciences? The first and most obvious answer is produce well-educated scientists. I asked around a bit, and reliable data comparing science enrollments at Amherst to peer schools—and science majors, and graduates who go on to science careers – seem a bit thin. Some of our peer institutions (who shall remain nameless) appear to be doing a bit better than Amherst on some of these indicators. The question of whether this is in fact the case, and why, is complex. It probably warrants more thorough study than I had time to give it in preparing this little talk. How are we doing in the sciences and where do we want to be?

The second thing Amherst (and other top liberal arts colleges) can do (and indeed are doing) for the sciences is to provide an alternative model for excellent undergraduate science education, and, in particular, undergraduate science education that creates a culture of success for women and minorities. And there’s evidence that some of the top research universities, in recent years, have been emulating the successes of a reform movement in science education led by liberal arts colleges. Parenthetically, Arnold Arons, an important physics professor at Amherst from 1952-1968, was a towering figure in the movement to promote scientific literacy.

By now the relative advantages of selective liberal arts colleges for science education are well known (to us, at least, although not necessarily to a wider public). What we say (and believe) is that science majors at our kinds of school, compared to those at research universities, can count on finding a whole complex of active learning opportunities, including:

  • Smaller classes, fewer lectures, a greater experience of academic engagement.
  • Teachers who are dedicated to teaching, who are more accessible in and out of class and whose commitment to active research enlivens their teaching.
  • Students who are more engaged with faculty—including the most senior faculty—doing the work that would go to graduate students in research universities.
  • Smaller laboratory sessions better integrated into lectures (with teaching faculty rather than teaching assistants designing and supervising them).
  • Labs that are focused on inquiry-based learning and on addressing open-ended questions.
  • Independent research projects involving faculty members more in time-consuming, personalized, hands-on supervision as an integral part of their own scholarly productivity and serving as role models and mentors.
  • Undergraduates who carry real responsibility in the lab and act more independently than is possible when they are at the bottom of the typical hierarchy in a large university research group.
  • Students who bring to their studies of the sciences broad interests and broad exposure to subjects in the social sciences and the humanities. With this broader exposure comes a more nuanced view of what constitutes critical thinking, and better-honed writing and speaking skills. Tom Cech, president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, likens this to the cross-training athletes do, and points out that Harold Varmus majored in English at Amherst.

Challenges Ahead

That said, it’s going to be a challenge for small liberal arts colleges (even Amherst) to hold their own in this era of dramatic discovery, intellectual ferment, intense competition, and warp-speed change.

The first challenge is attracting the best and brightest students for the sciences. Students interested in science careers are being drawn to urban research universities as the places where the action is—the equipment, the medical schools, the superstar professors, the mega-complexes with interdisciplinary teams doing cutting-edge research.

And if we do succeed in attracting these students to Amherst, can we recruit and retain them for the sciences? It might be interesting to think of recruiting scientists like recruiting athletes, and to ask whether the equivalent of “walk-on” scientists are increasingly rare, and if so, what that may signify for our admissions program.

Even those students who do arrive with an orientation toward the sciences may be diverted by the open curriculum, together with an institutional emphasis during the first two years on exploring new and different fields of study, certainly a laudable value for the college to advance.

Science courses in the catalogue look like familiar fare, and, based on high school experiences, too often not terribly exciting. Inventive approaches will be needed to turn students on early to the joy of real discovery, even as they confront the frustrations and dead-ends that are a necessary part of scientific exploration. There is some evidence that despite their advantages (the ones I’ve just listed), liberal arts colleges are not noticeably outperforming large research universities at reaching non-science majors or at retaining potential majors. We should be doing better.

Recruiting and retaining faculty will be challenging as well, and expensive. Contemporary scientists are trained to function in a rich research environment, addressing broad and complex questions with a vast array of state-of-the-art tools, engaging in interdisciplinary collaborations, working in teams that are breaking down the boundaries between disciplines and sub-disciplines, surrounded by colleagues who can round out what they know.

It is increasingly difficult for solo practitioners to work on discrete problems that are out of the fast-paced and highly competitive mainstream of big-time science (but interesting and important problems nonetheless) and work on them on weekends, summers, sabbaticals and with undergraduate colleagues.

The strong disciplinary demarcations typical of liberal arts colleges may stand in the way of creating environments that will appeal to these young scientists trained in high-voltage, interdisciplinary graduate programs. Senior science faculty will have to think creatively and persuasively about how their fields are changing and what kinds of junior colleagues will be able to thrive in our lower-density settings. They will likely have to hire people quite different from themselves (which is never easy).

Amherst’s excellent and dedicated science faculty are aware of these and other challenges, and they are taking steps to address them. But it is safe to predict that the sciences at Amherst are going to need a lot of support from the new president in the years ahead—institutional support, intellectual support and financial support. Applied thoughtfully and well, this will ensure that the extraordinary privilege of an Amherst education will equip every graduate to live as Nabokov aspired to write: with the passion of a physicist, and the precision of a poet.

I wish you every success in this, as in all things, Tony. We are so glad we found you. May your years here be filled with the joy of discovery.