Reinventing liberal arts education

June 2, 2009 at 4:43 pm 2 comments


Liz Coleman is the President of what was once the most expensive college in America – Bennington College. She shocked quite a few people in the 1990s when she made a radical and controversial decision to end the tenure system, abolish academic divisions and fire a lot of professors. This slashed budgets and took Bennington onto a completely new path by reinventing liberal arts education.

Fifteen years later it appears that the move has paid off. Bennington’s emphasis on cross-disciplinary, hands-on learning has attracted a large number of students to the small college, and has resulted in a vibrant environment for a new kind of learning.

Liz Coleman believes that radical reform is necessary in higher education. Her idea is that higher education is an active pursuit. In fact she says it is like a performing art. Her vision calls for lots of one-on-one interactions between professor and student, deep engagement with primary sources, highly individual majors, and the destruction of the traditional academic department. It’s a  goal that is not easily achieved and requires a lot of hard work.

Coleman does not think that the US is doing itself any favours by pushing kids into narrow areas of study. To address the  problems that the world faces today, she thinks it is extremely important to make education truly dynamic by combining all areas of study thus producing well-rounded individuals. Isn’t that something that many of us in this country believe as well?

Coleman is the ninth president of Bennington College. She graduated with honors from the University of Chicago, where she was a Ford Foundation scholar. She then went on to do her Masters’ in English and American literature at Cornell University, where she was a Woodrow Wilson fellow. She received her PhD with distinction at Columbia, where she was a Woodbridge and President’s fellow. Liz Coleman’s vision of a liberal arts education has gained for her recognition far and wide.

This talk that she recently gave at TED is really worth listening to.

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