The Liberal Arts College as a Sandbox for the Intellectually Curious

And why this matters to those of us who think about learning and technology.

April 20, 2017

If you are curious about how the world works, then the very best place to go is a liberal arts college.

Preferably a small college. One ideally situated in a beautiful environment, surrounded by mountains.

Small liberal arts colleges punch above their weight when it comes to creating ideas and nurturing idea creators. Small liberal arts colleges are where a love of lifelong learning is instilled. Where one develops the confidence to listen to opinions different from one’s own, and the ability to draw conclusions (and change one’s mind) based on new data.

But you know all this already.  

The question is not if a liberal arts college is the best place to learn how to think - and then to think really hard about big questions - but why this is so?

We need a theory of small colleges.  

After living and working at a small liberal arts college with big global ambitions for over a decade, I have a couple of hypotheses.  

My first hypothesis has to do with conversations. If you live and work at a small liberal arts college, you end up having lots of conversations with experts from many different areas of thought. On any given day you will run into life scientists and computer scientists, instructional designers and professors of English. Philosophers and librarians, chemists and historians. Where else in the world do so many people who know so much about so many different things interact with each other on a daily basis than on the campus of a small liberal arts school?

My second hypothesis has to do with culture. People who gravitate to small liberal arts schools value questions over answers. They prize evidence, flexibility, and nuance over certitude and appearance. Substance over flash. A supportive environment for the open exchange of information is essential for the development of new ideas. A suspicion of the conventional wisdom is necessary to advance how we think about an issue. A healthy liberal arts campus is a contentious place of ideas, and a nurturing place of people. The best colleges are living examples that debate and disagreement are necessary components of advancing knowledge, but that a conflict of ideas can occur within a common set of values and cultural norms.

A third reason (my third hypothesis) why small liberal arts colleges are disproportionate generators of ideas - and hence playgrounds for the intellectually curious - has to do with the interaction between teaching and research. Nowhere are these two activities as symbiotic and intertwined as at a small liberal arts college. The best schools invite students into the theories and methods of our academic disciplines at every stage of their education. Professors teach the knowledge that they are creating in real time, using the classroom as a laboratory to test out new ideas and to share new results.  There is a certain excitement that happens when a critical mass of people are all buzzing around thinking new thoughts, exploring new ideas. This can only happen when everyone in the community we call a college is an active participant in the work of discovery.  

What does any of this have to do with learning technology?

The goal of leveraging new technologies to advance the essential characteristics of a liberal arts education is one of the great challenges of our time. How can we utilize advances in learning science and digital platforms to improve upon a relational model of education? What can we do to extend the gifts of a liberal arts education, one that takes place on a small residential campus, to those learners who may not have the resources or time to access this model of education?  

I don’t know what the answers to questions about the role of technology in a liberal arts education will be.  

I do know, however, that those answers will best be discovered on the campuses of our small liberal arts colleges.


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