Office of the President

“The National Fount: The Liberal Arts as a Renewable Resource” (ADFL Summer Seminar. 2012).

2012 ADFL Summer Seminar West
Eugene, Oregon
7–10 June

The National Fount:
The Liberal Arts as a Renewable Resource

Let’s open this evening with a scene from a novel by Henry James, The Sacred Fount (1901). The novel is set at a retreat called Newmarch, where a group of friends and acquaintances gathered for social exchange, dining, and entertainment—not unlike a professional conference. They are all articulate and intelligent, Henry-James-type people. The sort one might find, in nascent form, in a liberal arts college seminar. The narrator plays a meta-role, not participating in the discussions so much as analyzing the quality of exchange and its various effects on individual well-being and growth. He is a pedagogue of sorts, and his observations of the social dynamic form the content of the novel. One man seems to have grown in stature and influence as a result of his exchange with a particular woman; another participant seems drained, enervated by her relationship with a new friend. In these interactions there seems always a giver and a taker, but the exchanges appear to be wholly apart from drawing on zero-sum, or quantifiable, limited resources. The narrator attempts to theorize about this article of human interaction. “It was extraordinarily interesting—I don’t mean the special drift” of what was being said, “but the phenomenon … of all people dealing in that article.” He continues:

It put before me the question of whether, in these strange relations that I believed I had thus got my glimpse of, the action of the person “sacrificed” mightn’t be quite out of proportion to the resources of that person. It was as if these elements might really multiply in the transfer made of them; as if the borrower practically found himself—or herself—in possession of a greater sum than the known property of the creditor. (53)

My focus this evening is on liberal arts education as an incubator and as a model for human creativity and social progress—as a renewable national resource in these areas—and then I will move more specifically to the humanities as the heart of that enterprise.

At any given time, of the hundreds of thousands of students enrolled in some kind of college or university, only 2% are at a residential liberal arts college, where they live and learn among friends and acquaintances. The model is the gold standard in higher education. We strive universally for engaged students, small classes, research-based or creatively infused curricula—these are both the inventions and defining characteristics of the liberal arts college. Large universities seek to approximate the model through the establishment of honors colleges and curricula, first-year seminar programs, residential colleges, and the like. Corporations do the same in referring to their sites as campuses, and by providing amenities to make employees feel in residence. We have all seen the statistics that show how students who attend such institutional structures assume positions of leadership and influence disproportionate to their numbers. Here are some examples from the sciences:

  • Of the 25 colleges and universities that produce the largest fraction of undergraduates who end up earning doctorates in the sciences and engineering, no fewer than 12 were liberal arts colleges and four — Swarthmore, Carleton, Harvey Mudd, and Reed—were surpassed only by Caltech and M.I.T.  
  • In the last 20 years, 70 Americans who received their undergraduate education in this country have won Nobel Prizes in chemistry, physics, and medicine. And of these, 16 — or more than one in five — attended liberal arts colleges. 
  • A National Science Foundation (NSF) report entitled Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering noted that 42 percent of African Americans and 19 percent of Hispanics and Native Americans who earned PhD’s in science or engineering earned their undergraduate degrees at baccalaureate and master's-level colleges and universities.  
  • More than half of the women earning doctorates in the biological sciences attended liberal arts colleges or master's-level universities.

And these accomplishments, we stress, were made by the 2% in liberal arts colleges.

Why? Why is the gold standard in higher education the small class, the seminar, the tutorial?

Higher education is a labor-intensive, human-centered phenomenon—nowhere more so than in liberal arts colleges. I taught a course this past spring with ten students. After the first few sessions I made some notes about each student – this one has star quality, this one I am not sure about, this one has potential, needs coaching, etc. The seminar was intensively discussion-based, and we were dealing with difficult texts. There were subtle and dramatic shifts in student performance and contribution over the course of 15 weeks – we lost one to exhaustion; the embodiment of mediocrity rose to prominence once she latched hold of something she picked up in a random aside by a classmate; the star remained brilliant. At the end of the semester one student conveyed gratitude to me for drawing her out, having her realize her potential and then surpass even what she thought she could understand, much less produce. Alas, I thought I pushed her less than some others.

In that classroom we learned content but content fades from memory. Long after the texts become external to consciousness, the vivid memory of having fiercely engaged the minds of others, and as a result grown beyond known capacity, remains— and remains, more so, as a model of how creative responses may be cultivated through interlocution. We need other minds to make our minds grow.

Whether in the sciences or in humanities, literature or languages, the small group inculcates the phenomenon of lateral-learning, of serving and receiving, of sacrificing and gaining – and more, of James’s concept of multiplying in the transfer, so that what one receives is in excess of what one is dealt; that is to say, that knowledge is not entirely a process of reception, but of creation. Education, from the perspective of the liberal arts, has relatively little to do with the simple transfer of information. It’s not, in other words, a transaction, but a collaboration.

When I speak to parents about a residential liberal arts education I often use a furniture metaphor. At one time a chest of drawers was a luxury item – in the pre-manufacturing era, such items were for the wealthy. Mass production changed that, and now a chest of drawers is standard in even the most modest of households. Nonetheless, you may still commission and pay dearly for a hand-crafted piece of bedroom furniture. It won’t hold any more clothing, but it will last a lifetime and will provide other sources of pleasure, satisfaction, and inspiration wholly unrelated to storage. For some, such an investment will take priority over other expenses.

You see the parallel to higher education. At one time there were only residential liberal arts colleges, and these were reserved for a small segment of the population, usually thought-leaders, such as ministers. Mass production models of delivery changed that, and now a college education is available to the vast majority, even if the vast majority does not fully take advantage of it – but this is another matter. Nonetheless, there remains a market, if you will, or a segment of the population interested in the hand-crafted variety of higher education. It won’t get you any more of a college degree, but it will last a lifetime and will provide sources of inspiration far in excess of content or skill.

Now this is where we find ourselves on a precipice, an ideological danger zone. Americans do not do well with notions of intellectual elitism. We’re OK with athletic elitism, hierarchies of beauty and performance, but when it comes to intellect, we are much more comfortable with a rhetoric of leveling. We know that a Harvard degree somehow does better in the marketplace than, say, a degree from a community college or a regional university, but we have a hard time thinking, much less articulating, that there’s a qualitative difference in these intellectual engines. You know, there’s book smarts and street smarts. Our ideas about social and economic mobility –hallmarks of American civilization, even with their flaws, clash head on with the hierarchy of college educations in place in the nation.

I don’t want to go too far out on this precipice beyond recognizing as a result the absolutely critical cause of reforming our financial aid structure, so that our colleges of hand-crafted educations are able to admit students who are academically driven to meet these higher intellectual bars without the factor of family wealth, or lack of wealth, standing as a barrier. But this does bring me to the challenge faced by the humanities in particular, in national conversations about higher education. The humanities is thinking about thinking, about what has been said or created or done or not done, and because it is harnessed to the varieties of human experience, it is unpredictable, and its outcomes and applications often unmeasurable. At a recent trustee meeting one of our board members asked whether we could assess the success of our majors by the percentage who find jobs in their fields. That’s a perfectly reasonable measure until we ask how to account for medical schools who prefer English majors, or language majors, to those whose preparation is solely in the sciences?

When the debate is framed as one concerned with employment, the humanities has relatively little to offer. This is because the content of what we offer in the humanities is not our primary value. One does not learn another language simply to say and think in that language what one would say and think in his or her native language—at least, not in the methodology of the liberal arts. If what one wants to do is ask when the train leaves, one does not need to major in language study—there’s an app for that. Understanding how language shapes consciousness, and how language study can expand and enhance one’s critical and creative capacities, bears little or no relation to whether one is drinking milk or leche. The “higher” in higher education indicates a higher plane than information.

What is critical in the current era is making the distinction between education and information. We in the humanities are in the best position to proffer the distinction, as we maintain vitally needed elite levels of higher education.

There’s a lot of chatter lately, fueled by statistical data, that expresses outrage that students don’t study very much, as much as you and I may have done back in the day. You’ve all seen the statistics.

When I was writing this speech, I wanted to provide some impressive statistics about liberal arts college graduates. When I was a college student, that would have meant walking away from my desk, where I was writing out the speech in longhand, to go to the library and do some research. For this targeted project, I’d estimate a few hours, with the walking back and forth, maybe a half day if I had to sift through a lot of materials. Today, I minimized my Word screen, went to my Internet browser, Googled “liberal arts college graduate + achievement and success,” and came up with thousands of references. And because I know how to sort among web pages of varying credibility, I took examples from “The Future of Science Education in the Liberal Arts College,” by Princeton University president Shirley M. Tilghman,1  and from the homepage of CUR, the Council of Undergraduate Research. It took me about 10 minutes, in part because of cutting and pasting logistics—still a lot faster than having to type up the information. Also, I could not readily find examples outside of the sciences, so I framed my examples as coming only from the sciences – figuring you wouldn’t mind, since they were so impressive, and you could imagine similar examples from the humanities.

From this research example, we can easily extrapolate that whereas thirty years ago I would “study” for two hours in preparation for that small portion of this project, today I “study” for 10 minutes. My study time has decreased from 120 minutes to 10 minutes and so the headline is: College presidents prepare 1/10th as much today as they did in 1975.

There have been numerous eras in human history where technological progress has fueled educational change. The paperback book made advanced literacy useful across socio-economic strata; the copy machine put an end to rote memorization; and today digital technologies make the distinction readily apparent between education and information. The burgeoning rate of plagiarism among students at all levels of education is evidence that many pre-digital pedagogical practices are archaic, and unproductive. If we are to insist that students do their own work, we need to have a clear understanding of what constitutes intellectual effort in the present era.

Ironically, the “information age” demonstrates most clearly that it is not information that moves human lives toward dignity and achievement, but creative engagement, active interest, and collaboration. At the forefront of higher education, then, the emphasis must move away from information gathering towards demonstrations of research and creative acumen, both by individual achievement and in collaborative relationships of exchange.

This is where the humanities has a critical role to play. No other area of human study has such a rich heritage of attention to form and structure, to thinking about thinking, and to critical intervention into human folly. As we in higher education are liberated from the drudgery of hand-to-hand information-harvesting, we can elevate our sense of expected student achievement in the liberal arts. What I foresee is greater emphasis on creativity, and less on duplicating the kind of information regurgitation now mechanized by search engines.

Paper processing technologies – the printing press, the book, the copy machine – liberated the human mind from the drudgery of memorization and allowed for the mastery of vast quantities of information and knowledge, as long as one knew where to find it. Digital processing technologies – the Internet, the search engine, the digitization of hardcopy resources – liberate the mind once again, toward heights and depths with which we are only beginning to grapple.

In The Sacred Fount, the narrator’s obsession with lines of influence and receptivity readily veers into epistemological questions concerning the barrier, if there is one, between his perceptions of influence and the independent existence of lines of influence. Rising above, or becoming detached from the noise of content itself, he looks at the social gathering as an organism, a living system of feeders and consumers, of those who service and those who benefit, with attention to when these roles shift, alter, and refasten. In the digital age, James’ point of reference in The Sacred Fount is more vital than in the era of its composition, 110 years ago. If anything, we have reified with technology the phenomena James observed between and among human beings in social settings—witness our new social networks, measured by who likes whom, and where the hits are made.

What can the humanities do to offer its rich heritage and critical methods of inquiry in the contemporary era? Or better, how does the current era of educational and pedagogical transformation compel a rethinking of humanities education? Here are six starting points, areas of promise:

  1. Teach super-literacy. With the onslaught of information available to us today, there will be a great need for those who can process, synthesize, and analyze disorganized and disaggregate materials into coherence: ask students to find inferior cheating sites;  
  2. Move away from coverage toward structure, in real time. In literature classes, for example, your students can readily find reading lists, bibliographies, summaries, and analyses. What they can’t find is the experience of close reading, real-time attention to form and structure, and real-time interlocution with another mind in the same room at the same time: slow down, cover less material, and do it in real-time; 
  3. Stress cognitive changes. In language classes, devote time at the most introductory level to the cognitive implications of grammatical structure and other seemingly rote matters: don’t reserve higher-cognitive challenges for upper-level classes; 
  4. Move epistemology to the forefront of pedagogy. The humanities is, above all, the study of being human, and human reflection on that study. Our perceptions, and the relationship between perception and knowledge, is what distinguishes our species: the phenomenon should permeate humanities pedagogy; 
  5. Talk about and reward creativity. Every academic department should be able to readily identify the role that creativity plays in its discipline, and the relationship between creativity and knowledge. Every good teacher knows that true learning of one’s discipline begins when one teaches it; and truly effective teaching occurs when one focuses not on teaching but on learning: Why keep this a secret to our pedagogy?  
  6. Encourage plagiarism. Reward students who can demonstrate to you that what you are asking them to create may be readily mined digitally, and adjust your expectations and lessons accordingly. Fashion curricular challenges towards advanced understanding and engagement with ideas.

Notice I am not addressing content. It’s not that content does not matter – of course it does, and we in languages and literature have made strides toward greater inclusivity in terms of whose voices are heard as the objects of analysis. I’m suggesting that the pendulum with which we are all familiar may need to move again, not to abandon justice advocacy – that would be an abdication of our progressive charge – but to understand that human progress is cognitive as much as it is social. And finally, such emphasis restores the role of the humanities not so much as celebratory of human variety, which it should be, but as well a set of high-order, cognitive skills vital to the public good.

Earlier this spring I published an essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the National Defense Student Loan program—the NDSL—a loan many of us took in 1960s and 70s. I’ll frame my closing point this evening by reading a paragraph from that essay:

“At some point, ‘NDSL’ ceased to signify National Defense Student Loan on its materials and became the National Direct Student Loan program; today we know these as Perkins Loans. The evolving nomenclature is telling. The war in Vietnam, as it persisted into the 1970s, damaged the reputation of the U.S. military and, in particular, national-defense policies. Nowhere was that damage more apparent than on college campuses, where the antiwar movement would insist that college and military be understood as separate, if not antagonistic, endeavors. Writing a loan-repayment check to the "National Direct Student Loan" program would be more palatable than writing it to the "National Defense Student Loan" program. But that linguistic accommodation signaled a damaging distinction in national spending priorities. ‘Perkins,’ of course, removes the government from the brand entirely and creates the impression of a private transaction. Therein lies the root of our contemporary problem.”

The essay in general asks when and how higher education evolved from a public good, like national security, to a personal possession, one measured not by the educational level of the citizenry but by the job opportunities available to 22-year olds. Higher education, like national defense, may be framed as a matter of national security if we recognize that as our civilization has progressed, the need for highly refined cognitive sensibilities and highly skilled linguistic capacity becomes increasingly vital to our survival. We need to reclaim college as a social good first and foremost—and from that starting place, national economic well-being and individual advancement will follow. But to reverse the logic is to open the door to what we have seen as downward trends in higher education: decreased access to education, falling completion rates, and a rise in anti-intellectualism in, of all places, the educational community.

The mission of the humanities, broadly conceived, has historically sought to bridge human absence, fulfill human desire, close the gap in human experience—to measure the space where experience or where articulation falls short. Often, that mission is imagined to stand in resistance to dehumanizing trends or forces. We know what those forces are today – as is often the case, they seem to be the very forces of progress, the latest and newest things. Atrophying in our hands today--hands busy with hand-held devices, tablets, and fast-moving video screens-- is the art of face-to-face interlocution. It is no surprise that we now marvel at the potential of collaboration ; it is becoming a scarcity.

Nothing squares with the humanities so resonantly as this current emergency and its antidote: the small class, the seminar, the exchanges characteristic of lateral learning. This “antidote” is the methodology of liberal learning – our pedagogy is vital now more than ever. It is no less than the sacred fount of national potential. But it must evolve away from rote learning and content-based instruction, and cease to duplicate what can be accomplished technologically. This may well require a re-thinking of classroom hours, of teaching loads, and course delivery. We are still in “the horseless carriage era” of digital technologies – the first automobiles were so startling to human conception that they could only be imagined in reference to what they were supplanting. I suspect the same is true of “distance learning” or “online instruction.” Our challenge will be to take full advantage of the liberating potential of digital technologies while rethinking the explosive space of direct human contact, the space where our future resides.

Toward the end of The Sacred Fount, the narrator articulates the value of face-to-face human interlocution, of unmediated dialogue: “We knew ourselves … to mean at every point, immensely more than I said or than she answered; just as she saw me, at the same points, measure the space by which her answers fell short” (272). … The pedagogic narrator continues to analyze what happens when minds interlock in dialogue: “What came back to me … in waves and wider glimpses, was the marvel of their exchange of signals, the phenomenon, scarce to be represented, of their breaking ground with each other” (274). As a result, what is discovered (or created) in collaboration would have been beyond the grasp, much less the imagination, of the single mind, exceeding the sum of what was brought forward by the discussants. In the humanities, one might say—as distinct from math and science—one plus one is always more than two.