Steven Volk and Beth Benedix, The Post-Pandemic Liberal Arts College – A Manifesto for Reinvention (Belt Publishing, September 2020).

Beth Benedix, Associate Professor of World Literature, Religious Studies, and Community Engagement at DePauw University; and Steven Volk, Professor Emeritus of History at Oberlin College, began a dialogue during in the early period of the Covid pandemic, when Beth had proposed a webinar on the topic of engaging students in the co-creation of knowledge in a liberal arts environment.  That idea led to the presentation of a CTL webinar entitled, “Adventures in a (Virtual) Student-Generated Learning” (April 16, 2020; see here).

The displacements that students and faculty experienced during the spring months of Covid sparked a lively dialogue between Steve and Beth about the differences between our educational values as liberal arts colleges and the actions that often define our practices. At the same time, events such as the widely-viewed police killing of George Floyd raised questions about the persistence of anti-Black racism in the U.S. in general and on U.S. campuses in particular. In many ways, they felt, our colleges were falling short of their aspirations and their responsibilities to their students, in effect becoming complicit in a process which makes it possible for some, but not all students attain their full potential and succeed.

In the four early months of this Covid pandemic, Beth and Steve – who have still never met in person – co-wrote a remarkable book entitled The Post-Pandemic Liberal Arts College – A Manifesto for Reinvention. The book was published in late September, and on October 8 they joined remotely for a webinar presentation hosted by the GLCA’s Consortium for Teaching and Learning (CTL).  In recounting themes from the volume they collaborated in writing, they addressed these themes among others:

 

  • Liberal arts colleges have participated in a process that too often transforms them from hallways of opportunity to gates of exclusion.
  • Our colleges have ceded to commercial forces their own power to define essential elements of knowledge and education. The external agents include ranking systems of U.S. News and World Report and similar publications which divert colleges from their missions and instead create a false meritocracy based on criteria that often discriminate against low-income or less-represented students and fail to evaluate the learning that occurs.
  • External testing programs for college-bound students create a culture in which students learn to memorize and fill in blanks with correct answers, more than to question, create, and develop independent visions of themselves.
  • The culture of college preparation inherently discourages young people who have not experienced educational and economic advantages from a young age. As the real cost of attending a liberal arts college continues to rise, many students of lower income find this choice unfeasible.  Colleges compete intensely for students from the more advantaged households in terms of income and educational experience. 
  • The system in place at most colleges is one that works against students having control of their own learning. The prevailing conception of higher education is the departmental structure – a system based in the nineteenth century that has graduate school as a central goal.  Departments are essentially inward-looking and focused on a given academic discipline.  Many of the challenges that today’s graduates will encounter require bringing together knowledge from different domains and being creative in new ways beyond the academy.

To ask seriously what it means to create a “post-pandemic liberal arts college” requires these institutions to look deeply at the actions they have taken and modeled for their students.  It is to ask:  What kind of culture do we want to create? 

Their book makes recommendations in several areas:  in how colleges recruit faculty, how they recruit students, and how they teach in ways that more readily include students of different backgrounds and encourage them to develop a distinctive identity.  The authors also consider different approaches for addressing the cost conundrum that many colleges face. 

The Post-Pandemic Liberal Arts College: A Manifesto for Reinvention by Steven Volk and Beth Benedix, is available from Belt Publishing.

A recording of the webinar that Beth and Steve offered the CTL October 8, 2020, can be viewed at this link

The authors will present their work this winter at the (virtual) AAC&U Annual Meeting.

— Greg Wegner, GLCA

 

 

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