The Revolution Starts Now

Fall 2011

By Elizabeth Coleman

During the past decade, we have witnessed escalating crises in the most vital areas of our public life, including: a relentless acceleration in our awesome failure to effectively educate vast numbers of our young; a no-less-relentless increase in the spectacular inequities in the distribution of wealth; an extraordinary timidity, to put it politely, in our approach to providing health care; a growing incapacity to discuss, much less confront, the potential of global warming to upend human civilization itself; an assault on the principles that define us as a people (the rule of law, the separation of powers, the relationship between church and state); a disconcerting predilection for the uses of force despite overwhelming evidence of its limitations; and a squandering of our material and ethical resources in less than a decade that defies credulity.

And at a time when clarity of thought, respect for evidence, and appreciation for complexity is especially critical, the sensationalism of the media — the other major educational institution in our society — continues undiminished. The distance we have traveled is best measured by reminding ourselves that the Federalist Papers were published in three New York newspapers and then, in response to popular demand, published in newspapers throughout the colonies. There is no more damning evidence of the failure of education in this country than the quality of what the public craves or tolerates in its media.

Yet, despite the tumult in the world around us, business as usual continues unabated within the academic establishment — most particularly, the higher education establishment, not a hair out of place, with a complacency and oblivion matched only by the hauteur of the 18th-century French aristocrat. Equally disconcerting is the failure everywhere, both within the academy itself and beyond, to draw any connections between what is happening in our public life and what is happening in our educational institutions. Education may be at the top of the list in the public’s mind when it comes to influencing access to personal wealth, but it isn’t even on the list when it comes to responsibility for the health of this democracy. 

To understand the imperviousness of our leading educational institutions to a world on fire and the public’s tolerance of this complacency, it is necessary to look at the framework of values in which education currently operates — more precisely, to confront the absence of a framework of values. Despite widespread enthusiasm for education, we persist in treating it as absent any intrinsic value. Instead, its value stems from the extent to which it successfully or unsuccessfully accommodates itself to other interests, whether they be political, economic, or religious. In contrast to every other major social institution in our society — law, health, business, government, media, and religion — where we have clear ideas about their distinct purposes, education remains a blank slate on which virtually anything can be written.

This orientation to education is particularly unfortunate given what the distinctive purposes of education as an institution actually are: that is, to transform possibilities — the very opposite of accommodation. Its job is not to perpetuate a status quo, but to make the world a better place both for the individuals fortunate enough to have access to it and the community of which they are members. No other institution has this responsibility, this source of legitimacy, this potential power. The depth of our associations between education and the possibilities for a better life undoubtedly accounts for our persistence in seeing education as the great hope for ourselves and the world despite the unspeakable betrayals of that purpose.

Our neglect of the distinctive power and responsibility of education is especially perilous in a democracy. From the beginning of this great American experiment in self-governance, education was universally understood to be critical in determining its fate. Thomas Jefferson put it most succinctly: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” He was not alone. George Washington: “In proportion as the structure of government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.” James Madison: “A well-instructed people alone can be permanently a free people.”

Given the historic association between the liberal arts and an education worthy of free men and women, it is not surprising that the United States gave birth to the idea and the ideal of the liberal arts college. Nor is it surprising that this country succeeded in making education available to everyone — a stunning accomplishment. But, alas, as access increased, the commitment to an education worthy of a great democracy disintegrated — and the tendency to dilute, to make accommodations, accelerated. In Helen and Robert Lynd’s Middletown, published in 1929, the president of the Muncie, Indiana, school board summed it up: “For a long time, all boys were trained to be President. Then for a while we trained them all to be professional men. Now we are training boys to get jobs.”

President Bill Clinton’s State of the Union message of 1994 uncannily echoed the words of the Muncie school board president, except they were spoken in the accents of triumph rather than despair. “We measure every school by one high standard: Are children learning what they need to know to compete and win in the global economy.”

That’s it? That’s the whole story? 

One might reasonably consider economic well-being to be one of the desirable outcomes of a successful education, but that is a very different matter from its becoming the sole objective of such an education — the standard by which everything is to be measured.

It is worth taking in the magnitude of the diminishing of values: for the individual, self-interest, defined solely in economic terms, replaces the values of human dignity, autonomy, and freedom; for the society at large, the aggregate of this narrow self-interest supplants the idea of a public life informed by the ideals of justice, equity, social responsibility, and a continual expansion of human possibilities.

As president of Bennington College, I most certainly appreciate the importance of money; but it cannot be the measure of all things. It is a very thin reed for any civilized world, and catastrophic for a democratic one.

I need hardly document here the consequences on education in America of a relentless and crude vocationalism. Its empty-headedness wreaks havoc everywhere. Despite endless reports and the spending of untold billions, students continue to drop out of school in droves and businesses increasingly are driven to educate their employees. Mastery of basic skills and a bare minimum of cultural literacy continue to elude vast numbers of our graduates and that includes large numbers of our college graduates. Despite having a research establishment that is the envy of the world, more than half of the American public demonizes evolution. And don’t press your luck when it comes to estimating how many of those who think they believe in it actually understand it.

Nor did the liberal arts establishment, the citadel of our most visionary education and the model for so many independent schools, escape the consequences of this impoverishment of values. The truth is we have professionalized what passes for liberal arts to the point where they do not begin to provide the intellectual breadth of application and the ethical depth that provides a heightened capacity for civic engagement, which is their signature. 
The ABCs of Anthropology
  • Applied Anthropology
  • Archaeological Anthropology
  • Anthropology of Religion
  • Biological and Physical Anthropology
  • Cultural Anthropology
  • Development Anthropology
  • Dental Anthropology
  • Economic Anthropology
  • Educational Anthropology
  • Ethnography
  • Ethnohistory
  • Ethnomusicology
  • Linguistic Anthropology
  • Medical Anthropology
  • Paleoanthropology
  • Paleopathology
  • Political Anthropology
  • Social Anthropology
  • Urban Anthropology
Over the past century, the expert has dethroned the educated generalist to become the sole model of intellectual accomplishment. Expertise has had its undoubted successes, but the price of its unrivalled dominance is enormous. The progression of today’s student is to jettison every interest except one, and within that one to continually narrow the focus. Subject matters of study are broken up into smaller and smaller pieces, with growing emphasis on the technical and the obscure. The perspective progressively narrows to confront an increasingly fragmented world generating a model of intellectual accomplishment that amounts not to learning more and more about less and less — already a dubious accomplishment — but more precisely to learning less and less about less and less. This, despite the evidence all around us of the interconnectedness of things.

Lest you think this is an overstatement, consider the beginnings of the ABCs of Anthropology (see sidebar at right). 
In addition to working in ever-narrowing contexts, as one ascends the educational ladder, values other than technical competence are viewed with increasing suspicion. Questions such as “What kind of a world are we making? What kind of a world should we be making? What kind of a world can we be making?” move off the table as beyond our ken. Incredibly, neutrality about such concerns is seen as a condition of academic integrity.

Criteria that would make it possible to distinguish between the relative values of the subjects we teach are religiously avoided. Every subject is equal, nothing is more important than anything else. Keeping up with one’s field — furthering the discipline — becomes an end in itself without reference to anything outside of the discipline. The “So what?” question is emphatically off limits.

This aversion to substantive values may seem at odds with the explosion of community service programs. But despite the attention paid to service, these efforts remain emphatically extracurricular and have had virtually no impact on the curriculum itself. In effect, civic-mindedness is seen as residing outside the realm of what purports to be serious thinking and adult purposes, more a matter of heart than of mind — a choice, often short-term, rather than a lifelong obligation. We in the academy have, in fact, institutionalized the very divides that poison our public life — between the most demanding uses of intelligence and civic virtue, between a good and a successful life.

In so doing, we, the guardians of secular democracy, in effect cede any connection between education and values to fundamentalists, who, you can be sure, have no compunctions about using education to further their values — the absolutes of a theocracy. Meanwhile, the values and voices of democracy — the very opposite of such certainties — are silent. Either we have lost touch with those values or, no better, believe they need not or cannot be taught, with devastating consequences for our political landscape. It’s William Butler Yeats’ nightmare vision come alive: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”

It is worth reminding ourselves that democracy is not a romance about the value of folk wisdom, the innate simplicity of problems, or the self-evident nature of the values upon which democracy depends. On the contrary, democracy rests on an appreciation of the inherent messiness and complexities of the world, the limitations of absolutes, and especially of self-righteousness.

There is no issue in public life for which there are not competing truths, competing rights. That means no easy answers, no self-evident virtue. Democracy, in short, is not some kind of natural condition, it is rather a remarkable accomplishment and requires the same demanding mix of intellect, imagination, and ethics as does the education that would make it possible. 

This is the context within which Bennington College’s innovations emerged — the challenge to create anew a robust connection between liberal education and the demands of a vibrant citizenship in a world where citizenship, to quote Hannah Arendt, has become the “lost treasure” of American political life.

At Bennington, certain things were clear. We needed to find a compelling alternative to the departmentalized, discipline-based structures that dominate every aspect of higher education — one that would enable the challenges from the world to assume a fundamental informing position in the curriculum.

Priorities need to be transformed so that enhancing the public good becomes an objective that is a match for private aspirations, and the accomplishment of civic virtue needs to connect to the uses of intellect and imagination at their most challenging. Our current ways of approaching agency and authority need to turn inside out to reflect the reality that no one has the answers to the challenges facing citizens in this century, and everyone has the responsibility to participate in finding them.

The central strategy for Bennington turned out to be disarmingly simple and straightforward: to turn the world’s most pressing problems themselves into major definers and organizers of the curriculum. They would be accorded the same authority to generate and organize curriculum now held exclusively by the traditional disciplines in the arts and sciences.

Our assumption was that rethinking the uses of force — how we educate our young; attend to the health of our citizens; come to grips with the consequences of the disparities in the distribution of wealth; face up to the enormity of human effort it will take to confront and contain global warming; re-imagine our structures of governance — is as potentially rich for generating curriculum as the disciplines that currently serve to organize education.

We also imagined that those capacities fundamental to addressing issues of this urgency, complexity, and magnitude could generate a new liberal arts capable of responding to the multiple challenges of real- world situations. The art of taking things in — seeing, reading, drawing — assumes a central role, as do those of communicating what has been seen with power and economy. Rhetoric, the art of organizing the world of words to have maximum effect, re-emerges as fundamental. Design, the art of organizing the world of things, assumes an equal importance. Mastering the arts of listening exists on a par with those of speaking. Mediation, improvisation, and the capacity for empathy also join this new pantheon — their power no longer treated as being limited to particular careers or arts, on the one hand, or presumed to be un-teachable, on the other.

Quantitative reasoning, understood as the craft of measurement, moves on to center stage.

We are discovering that, as the stakes and challenges of real-world engagement loom large, so too does the difference between ideology and ideas, the importance of evidence, the limitations of unexamined assumptions, the distorting power of preconceptions, and the self-indulgence of treating the triumph of our opinions as the end-all of intellectual community.

Beyond curriculum, the focus on advancing public action expands the ranks of people who teach at Bennington to include those whose lives give shape to our public life: business leaders, journalists, lawyers, doctors, soldiers, politicians, social activists, etc. Students, in turn, continue to move outside the classroom in the course of their education to negotiate the world directly, but now that experience is in an especially dynamic relationship with what is going on inside the classroom. In effect, two sides of a coin — each mutually reinforcing the other.

All of this activity in its multiple dimensions and forms does not preclude maintaining opportunities for students and faculty to continue to immerse themselves in traditional subject matters, disciplines, and crafts. This immersion is now juxtaposed with experiences that emerge out of a very different and equally powerful principle, defined by the challenges of putting things together rather than differentiating them, and focusing on what connects us to a broader community instead of the personal and professional objectives and dreams that distinguish us from one another. Both are, of course, profound dimensions of a human life.

As the Bennington community at every level increasingly confronts the rich dynamic between the public and the private good, the individual and the collective, the collaborative and the solo, these dialectics will undoubtedly transform one other. The unifying objective: to change the odds that our graduates will be committed to, and capable of, effective action in the world about matters of great human concern. 

In short, that they will be capable of living both a good and a successful life.

As I hope is obvious, the implications of what Bennington is attempting extend beyond any particular educational institution or any sector in the education spectrum. By raising the stakes to seek sustainable and systemic ways to address things in the world that really matter, we make it possible to rediscover and reanimate the intellectual, imaginative, and ethical power of education at every level from pre-K to post-doc — and for every student. 

We are talking about an education that measures value in something other than dollars or access to college. We are talking about values that are built into the very nature of the enterprise, not values as an add-on. We are talking about an education that is undoubtedly challenging, even daunting, an education that is lively, even explosive, but that is the furthest thing from driven or frenzied. We are talking about education as an adventure, not a treadmill.

And we are most certainly talking about independent schools, which are second to none in their potential both to shape and to lead in defining what we mean by an education — its agendas and its responsibilities. It is the willingness of independent school educators to insist on addressing such questions that is the heart of the matter. 

I am not oblivious to the challenges posed by external constituencies that speak loudest when anything that could possibly be construed to be out of the ordinary is on the table — most notably parents and the press. The questions are predictable. “What will this mean for my child?” “That’s all very well, but what are you going to do with a degree in…?” etc. For me, this raises the issue of leadership. To what extent do we follow what we call the market, and to what extent do we define it? It would seem to me, given our work, there is no question about what we should do and, frankly, what most people, even in this crazed consumer culture we live in, expect us to do. If our job stops short of defining what an education is, it is hard for me to know where it begins.

What is equally clear is that the power we actually have to define education today is often in marked contrast to the power we think we have. I believe that we have only ourselves to blame when we hand over to anyone else our responsibility to call the shots when it comes to defining our work. Alas, we do it again and again, believing that we have no choice. Trust me — we have a choice.

For those who remain tempted to leave well enough alone, or to start small, some final thoughts. First, in my experience, you take as much punishment if you dare even to think about change as you do for something approaching revolution. In other words, contrary to what might appear to be the case, you get no credit for moderation when you are doing anything other than applauding the status quo. So, if you are going to enter this arena at all, you might as well go for the gold.

Second, it is worth reminding ourselves that doing things in ways that fragment the potential for intellectual community and narrow our horizons, demand as much energy, if not more — and cost as much, if not more — than doing them in ways that create community and extend our sense of what is possible.

Three, we, not God or nature, made the schools we currently inhabit; hence, we can unmake and remake them.

Finally, the world is right in its ongoing passionate commitment to the power of education, despite everything. Imagine what could happen if we do it right. Imagine what will happen if we do not. The stakes could not be higher. We are unlikely to have a viable democracy made up of experts, politicians, zealots, and spectators.

Elizabeth Coleman

Liz Coleman is the president of Bennington College and a member of the NAIS board of trustees. A version of this essay was first delivered at the 2011 NAIS Annual Conference.