Diana Chapman Walsh: “The Liberal Arts College: What Does the Future Hold?”

Thank you so much, Arthur. So I see a number of my friends from the Amherst administration and from the Board of Trustees, and I have to say, when we were there in Mundgod with His Holiness, watching him move the Tibetan monastic universities forward in a change in their curriculum that was the first we’d heard in 900 years or 800 years—we were never exactly clear about how many—it certainly brought to mind some of the efforts in American higher education that change the curriculum. [Laughter] It sort of felt good to think somebody needed hundreds of years. Sometimes it felt as though, at Wellesley, like we were taking almost that long.

It’s wonderful to be here, and thank you for coming out on this chilly afternoon. It’s just such a wonderful honor for me, and a pleasure and a privilege to be, tomorrow, receiving an honorary degree from Amherst College. I feel just so delighted to be in the company of this year’s honorees. We went—Chris Walsh, my husband, and I—to a wonderful talk this morning right here by Madeline Janis [’82], just a terrific talk about her life and her work. She was such a beautiful—she’s an early Amherst alumna; she was in the third class of women at Amherst, she said. I’m pointing to someone who was in the first. And her story, her life story, was such an exquisite example of what we hope a liberal arts education can prepare someone to go out in the world to do. So, [it’s] just a privilege to be in this company.

To those of you who are graduating tomorrow—some of you raise your hands if you are graduating tomorrow. Do we have anybody? Yes, OK! Yes, yes, and your families? A hearty congratulations. We’re just so proud of you and all that you accomplished. A degree from Amherst College is a precious accomplishment—you know that. It carries meaning and shapes motivation throughout a lifetime. We are sending you out with all kinds of hopes for our future that are with you and will go with you.

So we are here this afternoon to celebrate our good fortune of this idyllic campus, if a little wet and cold for May—this beautiful New England campus of this great college. And we find here, in some ways, a world apart, a world that seems untroubled and permanent. Amherst is Amherst: it’s been Amherst for over 100 years; it will be Amherst far into the future, we know and believe. Here is an educational community that works, and that works at working. It’s residential and intimate and personal and collegial and consensual. It’s welcoming of effortful struggle—it even expects that—and yet it’s also a place of playfulness, of fun and joy. A wonderful place. A college that has delivered leaders to every sector of American life, leaders who have embodied the virtues that I think we recognize in someone who was liberally educated: not only intelligence and  cleverness and creativity—surely those things—but also compassion and humility, respect for our human folly and ignorance. Appreciation of our interconnections as we grow together toward wisdom.

So this is the Amherst I have come to know and to love in my 15 years sitting in a front-row seat, the very essence, really, of that rare and distinctively American institution that we call residential liberal arts college. Not so different, in many ways, from the college that I led and loved for 14 years. Fascinating in its similarities and in its differences.

But if we’re honest with ourselves, if we attend to the gale-force winds blowing our way, those of us who love these institutions, we do have to wonder whether, in the long haul, some of the traits that we’ve evolved may begin to hold us back. Can we identify and protect the irreducible elements of the Amherst experience, and at the same time face new challenges and harness the best of what’s ahead? Those are some of the questions that the trustees meeting here today, some right here, have been grappling with and will grapple with. How do we ensure that on a weekend like this 50 years hence, those who are here sitting here in our places will still be celebrating the very best of a vibrant liberal arts education, no matter how the specifics may have changed?

So, continuity and change—how to hold that tension in life-giving ways. It’s a perennial question, of course, through the ages for Amherst, for all of us, as individuals, as organizations, yet one that seems to me as pressing now as perhaps it’s ever been. In my dozen years as a sitting trustee at Amherst, I experienced the college and all its yeastiness in interaction, all its restlessness and skepticism, its intellectual honesty—I think that’s one of its really abiding traits—and its relentless inquiring. It’s suspicion of changes that might erode cherished values. And I saw, too, in those years the courage that Amherst can summon to transform itself when and as the times require. These are among the qualities that I most admire in this college, and they have been much in evidence in the college’s recent history.

Meanwhile, in the nation’s recent history, as Amherst’s own Joe Stiglitz [’64], the Nobel laureate economist who was a member of the Amherst trustees with us, as he documented in his book in 2012, the nation’s history has been marred by enormous increases in inequality of wealth and income. Americans are making collective decisions, Joe argues in this book—it’s called The Price of Inequality—decisions that have rendered our economic system not only inefficient and unstable—his words—but also fundamentally unfair. We know how to create, and we are efficient at an egalitarian society, he writes, but we’re stymied by political processes that have rewritten the economic and political rules while deflecting public awareness from the extent of inequality, the reasons for [and] the injustices behind it and the corrosive consequences flowing from it. So Joe wrote that book in part to begin to redress that balance. Amherst meanwhile has been taking steps to redress the balance for its part—steps that first required the college to change itself in fundamental ways, to change the composition of the student body, and then take a public stand, a principled and gutsy stand, on the responsibility of educational institutions, most especially those of privilege. To move from rhetoric about access and inclusion and about traditions of public service—we all talk about that a lot on our campuses—to move beyond rhetoric to meaningful, concrete action, to hold themselves to account. The Amherst faithful rallied behind these steps and now takes justifiable pride in having demonstrated that academic excellence and student diversity go hand-in-hand. They needn’t be in tension with each other. They support each other, those two values.

It was inspiring to watch this college work through its argumentative complexity to a place of relative simplicity, where this stand became understood as a thread that ran back to the college’s early years, to its founding, and on forward, looking towards its fullest future. Amherst has been writing its own history forward, and in doing so, advancing a way front that is propelling American higher education forward as well. This in a period of mounting doubts about the capacity of the enterprise as we know it to meet the needs of a rapidly changing world. Viewpoint diversity and civic service, cross-disciplinary knowledge, aggressive outreach to economically underserved populations, alternative epistemologies, a more integrated educational experience, greater value for money—these and other themes and warriors have been in the air, but the fact that Amherst College is an admired exemplar, has been singing these songs, too, sends sound waves out from this sheltered place that resonate far beyond.

So the story that I’ve just alluded to, this embrace of diversity with excellence and wider service, is, as I see it, the most recent chapter at Amherst. The next chapter, though, is being written now, as all in higher education are now confronting at least three unknowns, and probably a lot more, but three that I will talk to you about—three unknowns that, for the time being, appear virtually unknowable and yet at the same time inescapable.

The first is the whole bundle of questions related to educational technologies. “Interactive learning online” is the summary label that’s been put on them. Where and how that might fit in Amherst education; what, if any, threat its rapid ascent may pose to the essence of who you are as Amherst; how best to weigh the opportunities and the risks. Clay Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor, has become very well known for his theory of disruptive innovation. That theory has been generalized now to education and to colleges and universities. It’s been overgeneralized, I think, but there is plenty of cause for concern nonetheless, and with it, at the same time, cause for excitement. A report that was published a year ago by a new organization called Ithaka captured the enthusiasm behind this coming generation of learning technologies, and Danielle Allen, who’s here and a member of the Amherst trustees, served on the advisory committee to that report. The authors, who are all respected higher-education insiders, take the position that these emerging learning systems—and this is a quote—“will bring about fundamental reform,” that they have the potential to increase faculty productivity—faculty don’t like that word, but these were faculty who use it—to increase faculty productivity and reduce instructional costs without sacrificing educational quality. Again, their words.

The trend is not going away, they conclude, in any case, no matter where it leads us. The quality of these courses will improve, students will acclimate to them, faculty will experiment with them, the courses will migrate—some courses will migrate, in any case—but whether this will change the overall structure and cost of the higher education remains to be seen. Few, I think, would argue anymore that the cost trends as we’ve seen them are sustainable. That is an enduring problem that all recognize.

Meanwhile, just last month in this space, this “Red Room,” as it’s called, with its bright red rug, where a lot of interesting and contentious conversations go on among the Amherst faculty, here in this room, the Amherst faculty took a high-profile stand against too hasty an alliance with the fashionable but untested MOOC movement. Does everybody know what “MOOC” means? No? “MOOC” stands for “Massive Open Online Courses” … Somebody quipped that we’re so afraid of the MOOCs as some very threatening new thing, but there was a time when the book was a threatening thing and strange thing. In any case, the MOOCs: There’s been quite a bit of publicity on them, really—attention on a scale that’s unusual for innovation in higher education. It’s been all over the public press. So Amherst made the decision, it was a surprise decision to some, to decline an invitation that they had received—one of the write-ups about this called it a “courtship”; Amherst was being courted—to join MIT and Harvard in an alliance called edX, a new collaborative of institutions, a consortium of institutions that are working to develop these new Massive Open Online Courses, and to see where they may take us. Amherst’s surprise decision invited others to take a breath and pause and reflect. I think one had the sense that it was this juggernaut that was moving forward, and when Amherst publicly said, “No, we’re not sure,” others said, “Maybe we should pause, too.”

And that’s good. That’s all good: the worries are legitimate. Joe Stiglitz’s “privilege gap” is one of the worries: the worry that computer screens will replace more and more faculty around the country in the institutions, and less wealthy, less highly endowed institutions that are struggling to stay afloat, looking for efficiencies. Already we can see and have been seeing a thinning of the ranks of faculty in mid- and low-tier institutions, and with them the spaces that these colleagues hold for the cultivation of reason in our country, in an era inhospitable to intellectual pursuit. To see the professorate shrink is not a good thing, I would argue.

A second worry is the potential erosion of the humanistic values at the heart of the liberal arts ideal and at the heart of the American democratic experiment, as many have written for many years. Residential education needs champions now as online learning gains in appeal, and so does liberal education, which is not a new story, but one we ignore at our peril, certainly at the peril of the fine liberal arts colleges. And this is something that many wise scholars have been arguing for years, including the Amherst faculty, who crafted a mission statement while I was on the board. They worked for a very long time, crafting a very thoughtful statement of Amherst’s mission in the world, in which they affirmed their commitment to “learning through close colloquy in a purposefully small residential community.” So I know for sure that we can count on the Amherst faculty, on the Amherst alumni, the graduates who’ve experienced this remarkable education, to guard against any technological incursions that would diminish the close faculty-student relationship that is the essence that defines this extraordinary education available here on this campus. But still the cost questions do persist, and the small niche in which the residential liberal arts college exists in the larger context of American higher education continues to shrink, and those are concerns.

A third worry is a drive towards offering credentials for these Massive Open Online Courses, as the logical next step toward developing (for them) a sustainable business model. Credentials, some sort of certificate of completion for a start, could lead to credit, formal course credit, that could come along, and with that arguably a devaluation of the value of the residential education. Because online courses are expensive to develop, even in the nonprofit sector where edX has staked its claim, there are strong incentives for money to affect decisions. Elsewhere most of the work on MOOCs is involved somewhere or another with venture money and investment money that one could imagine might distort the incentives in other ways. We don’t know, we simply don’t know that, and a great many financial and practical questions remain still to be hammered out in this brave new world of online learning.

But what of the future? What about the future? There, I think, some sort of reckoning with the potential of these fast-moving technologies seems inevitable. And I worry that our venerable ways of governing ourselves, institutions like this one, like the one I led, don’t encourage us to make decisions quickly. We might call that an understatement. [Laughter] They don’t enable us easily to change course, to seize opportunities to operate nimbly. We talk about that a lot. And will this become a huge and debilitating handicap as the world moves rapidly? We don’t know, but we do fret about that question.

In the meantime a number of liberal arts colleges are experimenting with what they call “blended learning models” that use aspects of what would be possible in these massive courses but tailor them to smaller courses, applying technology selectively to see if they can advance learning in a way that actually preserves or even enhances the relationship between the professor and student by offering the professor new tools, useful new tools for identifying and removing the blocks that impede student learning in residential settings, getting smarter about what gets in the way. And are there things that we could do to help students, maybe using technology to move past something that is difficult material?

Revitalizing the undergraduate residential experience is an explicit goal of some of the big universities that are leading the charge into online learning, and MIT in particular. As you heard, I sit on the corporation; I’m joining the executive committee; I’ve been watching MIT move forward with this. MIT has been sharply focusing not only on the possibility that these courses can be made available widely around the world but also on the necessity that as that happens MIT needs to figure out how the things that it learns from developing these courses can strengthen the education it’s providing its undergraduate students on campus. So we might worry, those of us in the liberal arts college sector, that as large research universities make a systematic study of what has always been our special strength—this very personalized education—maybe liberal arts colleges will become even more vulnerable in this vanishing niche that I mentioned before.

Or we can try to reimagine the liberal arts college in the 21st century. Swarthmore’s President Rebecca Chopp and 20 of her colleagues have been trying to do that. They’re about to come out with a new book called Making the Case for the Liberal Arts College. Chopp writes, “We will have to stretch our institutional structures and cultures to match the forms of learning, teaching and knowledge creation that will dominate the 21st century.” Something’s changing, she says, and we will have to find a way to adapt to it. We should boldly claim a countercultural view.

So this brings us to the second of my three unknowns: what, if anything, to make of what’s being called a new science of learning for a new generation of learners. Is there, or should there be, a new culture of learning? Yes, say Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown in an intriguing new book with that title, A New Culture of Learning. They argue that the old culture, as they call it, misses completely how students learn today. They argue that students are different, and I’m looking at the young people, and I bet you agree. For kids who’ve grown up in what they call a participatory medium that supports multiple modes of learning, and that blurs the lines between producers and consumers of content, they say the old notion of education as the transfer of content from professor to student—I teach you this content; I test you to see if you got it—that old model, they say, can’t compete anymore. They have a very upbeat view of an information-rich, Web-enabled learning collective that harnesses participants’ eagerness to learn, that’s fun and exciting, that engages them in learning-by-doing and in not finding answers but better and better and deeper and deeper questions, and continuing to pursue questions, and working together in the spirit of what they call collective play. This is the learning of the future, they assert: a peer-to-peer cultural and social process of entering and transforming and being transformed by a constantly changing world that rides the waves of change instead of trying to manage change away.

Well, maybe that’s the new way of learning. We really don’t know. We don’t know yet very much about how students learn, and that’s because educational research has, for years, been stuck in intellectual backwaters. Most faculty in the leading colleges and universities think a lot about their teaching, the good ones—they think a whole lot about their teaching, certainly in the leading colleges and many universities, but the signals that they mostly receive are consumer-oriented student-satisfaction surveys that have dominated course evaluations. That’s pretty much how we’ve asked ourselves how we are doing, up till now.

What we haven’t done, for the most part, until quite recently, is delve into … systematic studies of how students learn, a field that has meanwhile been percolating slowly out of view. And that’s starting to change, and this is another force out there. In some of these consortial arrangements that are being created to try to advance online learning, and some often with support from foundations that are interested in education, the science of learning, the science of learning is moving into mainstream higher education in new ways. It draws on multiple disciplines, on neuroscience and information technology, software engineering, psychology, sociology, anthropology; puts those specialists together with people who are experts in the content they want to convey; and develops new ways of thinking about how we educate and how we learn about learning. They are developing adaptive learning systems that use artificial intelligence and learning analytics, that may, in time, make it possible to mine data on hundreds and thousands of learners as they are learning in these online settings, and from those data and from analyzing those data, to begin to customize and tailor the instruction to individuals.

So this may be education’s analog of the genomic big-data revolution in health care that people talk about, the vision in health care of personalized precision medicine, someday way off in the future. I think there’s a more-than-even chance that the impact on education could be profound, here and around the world.

And that brings us to the third and last of our unknowns, and back to Joe Stiglitz’s inequality, but now on a global canvas, because over and against the danger that we saw earlier, that these technologies could exacerbate the privilege gap, is a dream of reaching out to masses around the globe, improving lives on a scale that we can hardly even imagine today. Terras Irradient, [reads] Amherst’s seal from 1825.

So what is it that we imagine Amherst has to offer the world in this second decade of the new millennium, that’s teaching us, if nothing else, how radically interdependent we are as a young species on a fragile planet? Well, I think Amherst and the best of the liberal arts colleges with Amherst are teaching students to appreciate human differences in far more nuanced ways than we ever have before.

And this is what I wish for coming generations, on which so much depends for all of you: I wish that you may learn to transform your conflicts, rather than glossing them over as too hot to handle—as we often do, while you draw further apart; learn to value differences of opinion and experience polar positions and contradictions as a crucial resource for learning and for moving ahead. I hope you’ll hone a set of skills to move to deeper levels in encounters that open you up rather than shutting you down, as so often happens now.

Colleges and universities are, in many ways, petri dishes for working through problems confronting the larger society, as we have watched the twin forces of globalization and technology tie humanity at breakneck speed into more and more complex networks of mutual dependency. The local struggles on our campuses—and we’ve all seen them erupt—they remind us of the work that we still have to do, if we humans are to evolve the social sophistication that we need if we are going to live interdependently, in our diversity, now living side-by-side with otherness to a degree never before seen or imagined.

So we’ll need a next generation of leaders who can see big problems whole, who can fashion solutions that are systemic and innovative, who can cross disciplinary and institutional boundaries, who can draw wisdom from all sorts of perspectives and experiences, including from the poor and the disenfranchised, who so often are left out of conversations about how we should move ahead. So I wish students of the future, for the future, will learn these things, and I believe they will. I wish for them the ability to hear and tolerate the diversity within themselves, to recognize their own inner voices, their quarrels, their moods; to notice how fluid and ephemeral their own wandering thoughts are, so they can see and appreciate differences in others, so they can use the practice of self-discovery to move beyond themselves.

And here Amherst has a special resource in the Mind & Life Institute, which Arthur [Zajonc] is leading as president and [which] has recently taken up residence here on the Amherst campus. As you heard Arthur say, this organization 25 years ago was co-founded by the Dalai Lama and has been catalyzing, all those years, an ongoing dialogue between Tibetan Buddhism—those monastic traditions he describedat the beginning—between Tibetan Buddhism and Western science, so two great intellectual traditions in search of greater insights into the workings of the human mind. And lately the Dalai Lama has also been advocating that we think, all of us, that we think in new and fresh ways about an ethics for the new millennium, an ethics that would be rooted in mindfulness. His hope is that experts, investigators in the contemplative sciences—there’s a new subfield of neuroscience called contemplative neuroscience—that they will join scholars and educators in social and emotional learning and philosophers and humanists, to begin defining the essential ingredients of the liberal education that will nourish students’ cooperative, collective and altruistic capacities, that will teach them how to be more fully human.

His dream is that these kinds of efforts may someday support future generations in becoming even more skillful at leading themselves with focus and calm, with caring and kindness, with—in a word—compassion. So we can recognize in these aspirations an enduring part of the liberal arts college ideal. Liberal arts colleges—with their strong emphasis on student development and close relationships with the value they place on the life of the mind, on student engagement and shared intellectual pursuit—liberal arts colleges have been relatively unabashed in their belief that these kinds of encounters, this kind of education, will enable students to hone their moral and ethical sensibilities and will develop character, that elusive quality that’s hard to define, but we know it when we see it. And now, as the Dalai Lama has been reminding us, it is ever more urgent that we do all we can to awaken ourselves and awaken coming generations to our intricate interweaving with all living beings. It’s ever more urgent that we do that. What it means for us, that we are interconnected in these ways, what it calls us to do and to be, how it requires us to live. So that’s a big challenge, that I see Amherst as the kind of place, the kind of college, the kind of community—caring, intellectual, deeply thoughtful—that can lead that charge, lead us forward in this way, in this quest to secure our future, as the Dalai Lama has charged us to do at the Mind & Life Institute. And that gives us and me great hope for the future. So, thank you, and now we can have a conversation.