How the liberal arts can avoid becoming road kill (essay)
The atmosphere at the university workshop on online learning was becoming a little edgy, with questions in the air like “What does flipping a classroom really mean?” And, more dauntingly, “Do MOOCs threaten our liberal arts model of education?” A high point occurred when one participant, addressing a panel of faculty and administrators, asked, “What is our solution to these changes?” with the not-so-gentle observation, “Because if we don’t have one, we are road kill.”
The response from the panel was slow in coming -- no big surprise. Fact is, there is no easy answer. That’s because the question of how not to become road kill presumes that we understand why we should not become road kill. It is only through a clear, here-and-now answer to the second question that we are likely to devise a credible response to the first.
So here is a here-and-now context for why. Truly harrowing challenges are upon us: climate change, with its companions, the sixth mass extinction, and ecological overreach, are all bearing down on us potential road-pizzas like a convoy of 18-wheelers.
By the time this year’s graduates are ready to send their children to college, the planet’s CO2 concentration will have reached 450 parts per million, summertime Arctic sea ice will be a thing of memory, and humanity will have committed a dozen future human generations to a minimum 2°C temperature rise. These are the terrifying facts of our current reality, and without proper leadership, our likely fate.
To meet these challenges, people -- our future leaders -- need the best possible technological expertise. More than that, they need to be able to think across multiple time horizons. If only liberal arts colleges provided that kind of relevance.
Well, maybe we do.
My daughter just got home from her first year at college — a liberal arts college. Had she experienced anything, I asked, that spoke to dangers that are so slow that they span generations, but are no less deadly for being slow? She looked at me as if to say, do you really know what you’re getting yourself into? Because that was the whole point of her paper about Virgil’s epic poem, the Aeneid.
This was her experience: She had cried when Aeneas killed Turnus. But more than that, she was outraged. For the sake of a moment of vengeful glory, Aeneas had lost his way from the past to the future.
And that related to my question … how?
Try a little empathy, she suggested.
I eventually got it. This, the early part of the 21st century, is our moment. Our willingness to make painful sacrifices for the latter part of the century depends on our ability to empathize with people we have never met — our future grandchildren. Experience in empathizing across a broad expanse of time is one kind of relevance liberal arts institutions have a lot of experience providing.
A second kind of relevance to those harrowing challenges is directly related to the Internet itself. Few would contest that the Internet is an indispensable asset in describing the complex environmental and societal processes that collectively make up what is referred to as climate change. Put another way, no college graduate today should be ignorant of the potential for Internet-based computational power and knowledge to model and predict future climate.
This potential is, of course, much more general. Broadly speaking, the Internet and liberal arts share something very important. They are both about the creation and use of knowledge through collaborative work. How were Unix, Git, and LaTex created? All were the result of a very liberal-artsy vision for online collaboration.
Can liberal arts colleges provide that kind of relevance, too?
As educators, preparing future leaders to exploit the resources of the internet will require that we move into that space ourselves. We have to learn to recognize the opportunities for new paradigms for learning that the internet has created. One major shift already under way is a reorientation toward student-centered classrooms.
Flipping a class -- so that online lectures are viewed at home and class time is spent in active discussion -- is an example. Flipping isn’t new, but digital technology makes flipping easy, and that is new. It works because it lets humans and computers each do what they do best.
Beyond that are new digital tools that we are just figuring out how to use. Examples are discipline-specific software products like Spartan. Spartan produces molecular electronic structures, in three dimensions, on the computer screen. It lets students see and manipulate these structures by solving the most basic equations known to science. Maybe I’m not making that sound as cool as it is, so let me try again. If you think chemistry is an impossibly difficult, jargon-ridden, mysterious science, you are right. Spartan changes that by making every sit-down experience with it a unique, original investigation into the nature of chemical behavior. This is digital-based pedagogy with methodological muscle, formerly a graduate school tool, now accessible to freshmen. You just have to find a way to make it happen in your classroom.
It is through the combination of these two kinds of relevance -- Aeneas and Unix -- that students at undergraduate institutions, our future leaders, get wired for sound, classical judgment informed by the tools of modern life. And if individual liberal arts colleges can deliver these skills better than most, leveraging the advantages of small classes and inspired mentoring, then we are an important part of the response to that convoy rumbling our way.
These kinds of tools are not online grading, and not MOOCs either. They represent a new kind of information literacy. True, we are not there yet; it will take effort, and a bit of daring, to figure out how to teach tools like these. But as we grow into them, we will discover previously unimagined new paradigms for learning.
Rather exciting, actually, considering the stakes. And not at all like road kill.
Steven Neshyba is a professor of chemistry at the University of Puget Sound.