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02 December, 2016

About the 21st Century Liberal Arts



Today's ICLAST (Innovation and Collaboration in Liberal Arts, Science, and Technology) event brought together all the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts School chairs, each presenting a short statement about their and their unit's views on the future of the liberal arts, and three respondents: Bill Wepfer, Chair of the Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering; Paul Goldbart, Dean of the College of Sciences; and Colin Potts, Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, as respondents. Thanks to Carol Colatrella for including this event in her forum series.

My contribution started out like this:
When Dean Royster invited us to share our thoughts on 21st Century Liberal Arts Education, I started to obsess about the rhetorical implications of that very term. By now, in 2017, the 21st century has almost reached adulthood, but we stubbornly cling to the conviction that something radical happened when we breached the millennial boundary 17 years ago. The implication is that, around the year 2000, a paradigm shift happened, disruptors altered educational traditions, industry thought leaders flipped boredom-inducing classrooms, and many of us signed up to be agile change agents and nimble innovators. Of course, the main reason for our attributing such significance to a rather random temporal boundary is our own desire to establish markers that help us believe in a teleology of progress, one in which we unfailingly and unstoppably move ever onward from a darker past and grey present to a bright future.
Interestingly, the second element of today’s topic runs counter to the above narrative of progress, because the ongoing existence of the Liberal Arts, which have been around, in various iterations, since Classical Antiquity and certainly since the Middle Ages, suggests that there is a continuity in the human effort we call education. Thus, while various techniques and technologies may have changed educational practice over time, the ongoing existence of the Liberal Arts confirms the existence of a relatively stable common humanity across centuries. With a little bit of an effort, and a good translator, we can still understand Sappho, Aristotle, Tacitus, Cicero, Dante, Margery Kempe, Machiavelli, Montaigne, and Phyllis Wheatley, etc., and we can sympathize with and enjoy the music, art, and narrative of humans who lived 200 or 3000 years ago....