Want To Change The World?

Today is Liberal Arts Education day here on PrattleNog. My head is spinning with thoughts about the tremendous personal and social benefits of such because three items have crossed my path related to this question: Why is a liberal arts education important? These three items have raised for me four BIG CONCERNS. Here goes:

First, Inside Higher Ed posted an interesting opinion piece today titled The Case of the Disappearing Liberal Arts College. The authors argue that change in higher education is essential and inevitable, and that liberal arts institutions continue to be critical to well-educated citizens.  Their proposal? That private philanthropic foundations take the lead in guiding changes to higher education thoughtfully and carefully.

BIG CONCERN #1: Are private philanthropic foundations positioned well enough or powerfully enough to take on the “market forces” that the authors describe? I applaud the authors for suggesting next steps, but I fear that their proposed next steps are not strong or significant enough, partly because of the next item that crossed my path.

Here is this next item: A colleague sent me the link to this video of Liz Coleman, the President of Bennington College, speaking to the importance of a liberal arts education. One of the key things she says is this:

When the impulse is to change the world, the academy is more likely to engender a learned helplessness than to create a sense of empowerment.

BIG CONCERN#2: Don’t you think the “academy” — as a place of learning and transformation — should be doing exactly the opposite? (A side note: I think in many ways my own institution often does, but sometimes I think it may be more accidental than intentional.) Watch the whole video because Coleman makes some very good points.

Finally, closer to home, we are wrapping up phase one of our Envisioning Marylhurst process. One of the strategic themes identified in this process — one that I worked very hard to shape during the first conference after a dichotomy between a liberal arts education and a professional education was suggested — is this:  “Pioneer the integration of the liberal arts and professional studies to support lifelong learning.” The key word in this phrase is integration.

BIG CONCERN #3: We really need to take this work seriously if we want to provide the kind of education that Coleman proposes: “a truly cross-disciplinary education — one that dynamically combines all areas of study to address the great problems of our day.”

BIG CONCERN #4: Is this the kind of institution we want to continue to be?

Wow. I sure hope so.


Where We’re Going, There Are No Roads

For the past 6 months I have been co-leading the “Mission Team” in Envisioning Marylhurst, my university’s strategic planning work.  This past Monday all seven teams came together and presented their final 5-year strategic plans and 2-year action plans. The devil is, of course, in the details, spelled out meticulously in the multi-paged documents, complete with prioritized action steps, assigned departments or leaders, and rough cut budgets. It goes without saying that actual implementation is yet to come and will require more energy and work, but in the meantime, here’s a glimpse at what our team presented: Embracing Our Mission

RiskNotTakingRisksCartoonI feel quite fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with such great colleagues throughout this process. Every one of our team members was creative, generative, cooperative, respectful, and supportive of the process, and I am grateful for their participation, energy, and care.

I am also so thankful that our team received such thoughtful feedback from so many people as we drafted and re-drafted (and re-drafted again) our plan. Faculty, staff, students, and community members provided us with ideas and good energy to move us forward in our work, and I cannot imagine how our plan could have possibly come together as it did without their input.

Of course I am also immeasurably grateful to the salmon-fishing Sister and our team’s co-leader, Pam Miller. I thank her for her hard work, cooperative nature, reflections, and guidance.  I almost turned her down when she asked me to work with her in leading this team; I am glad that I gave it a second thought.

As this phase culminates, I have come to realize that serving in this role and on this team allowed me to learn so much more about this University — its history, its values, its educational intentions, its “learning” centered-ness, its founders, and now, its future. While the skeptic in me — the realist, perhaps? — is tempted to worry about implementation, about funding, about feasibility, about contingencies and conflicts, for now I leave this process feeling optimistic that by our walking, the roads will be built.

That’s a good feeling to have.

Bloom Where You Are Planted

I read blogs.
And I like to write.
So … why not write a blog that other people might read? (I ask this sarcastically … kind of.)

Well, that’s the idea here.

More specifically, I would like this to be a place and space where students and colleagues go. I’d like this to be a destination (ok, but isn’t this what every blogger wants?). I want this to be a place where we can find support, ideas, questions to ponder, ponders to questions, food for thought, and maybe even some humor (depending on the day). And though it sounds strange, perhaps here we can find a kind of community — here in the independent land of individual bloggers???? Yes, I think we can. Or as one of my favorite quotes goes: “Yes we can.”

So I begin with the image of this here tree — it is rooted, and yet it has new branches, new leaves, new avenues for growth, without compromising the underlying structure, its root-ed-ness. My grandfather, a peach and grape farmer when he was alive, would have appreciated that with such a tree, we can graft — we can change the very nature of the tree and its fruit by adding new branches to it. (Perhaps this is a perfectly prime pluot tree!)

My colleague and friend Pam and I found this image (thank you Google images) and selected it to represent the “vision theme” that we are co-leading for our university strategic planning team (the “Mission” team) . Here is the language of this theme:

“Embrace the founding mission and values of the University, as established by the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, to educate the whole person, serve the underserved, promote interfaith dialogue, and engage in social action for the good of the community.”

Though this wasn’t originally the “team” or the theme that I was most interested in working on, it has, in fact, “grown” on me. The four focus areas resonate with me in different ways, but each significantly:

  • Educate the whole person — why would we not? Do we want students who just want to learn something but not have it be meaningful or relevant to them? To what end? Isn’t the most meaningful learning that which is connected to our heads, hearts, bodies, and lives?
  • Serve the underserved — “Underserved” certainly has a lot of interpretations, but the idea here is strong. There are those who need access to higher education and it would be lovely to embody an ethic of “service,” accordingly. (And I don’t mean “customer service.”)
  • Promote interfaith dialogue — This is my own growing edge. I have a lot to learn about this aspect. I greatly appreciate that Pam is one of my teachers.
  • Engage in social action — This reminds me of a sign posted at St. Mary’s College of California: “Enter to learn; leave to serve.” Lovely!

The tree image also reminds me of a sign that used to hang in the kitchen of the house in which I grew up. It said, “Bloom where you are planted.” That is what I am attempting to do in general, yet I also know that I need to change the conditions if they are not right for blooming.

And I know that I can. Yes I can.