Friday, May 29, 2020

Not Too Distant Tomorrow

Today’s news has been especially troubling, as we see demonstrations turning to riots in the wake of yet more tragic deaths of people of color at the hands of police officers.

As a nation, we had already been driven to our last nerve by the pandemic. Divisions within our country have been growing more intense as we struggle with helplessness and uncertainty. We hear irrational debates about liberty and safety being at odds with each other. COVID-19 has amplified the disparities of privilege that surround and dispirit us: race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, economic opportunity, age, and ability. There is little justice in the margins and the margins are growing by the day.

Then, in this crucible of despair, we witness yet another round of senseless violent deaths steeped in racial and social division. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery have joined the seemingly endless cort├Ęge of stolen black lives in America.

The cure for helplessness is action, but when that comes from a place of despair the irrational can feel righteous. We must not be overcome by the hate we wish to extinguish.

Susquehanna’s Chaplain, Scott Kershner, closes each service with this benediction:

Go out into the world in peace.
Have courage!
Hold fast to what is good.
Return no one evil for evil.
Strengthen the faint-hearted, support the weak, help the suffering.
Honor all people.

In Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote “Justice too long delayed is justice denied.” Progress has been too slow, and in recent years, it has been tragically replaced with regress. How should we move the pendulum back to its forward swing? Dr. King reminded us that, “Nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek.

In a recent opinion piece, columnist, David Brooks wrote:

Right now, science and the humanities should be in lock step: science producing vaccines, with the humanities stocking leaders and citizens with the capacities of resilience, care and collaboration until they come. But, instead, the humanities are in crisis at the exact moment history is revealing how vital moral formation really is.

This is a stark reminder of how much we as a people can and need to be uplifted and inspired by the power of the liberal-arts and why a commitment to equity and inclusion is a critical foundation of a liberal education.

When I was researching Susquehanna as an applicant to be president, one of the elements that attracted me to the University was the Statement on Diversity and Inclusiveness, which was adopted by the Board of Trustees in 2007.

It includes this recognition:

As we seek to fulfill these commitments our perceptions, understandings, and expectations will often come into conflict with those of other members of the campus community. These conflicts are not to be avoided, but should be seen as opportunities for learning and growth. Our responses to such conflicts must be framed by our respect for all people and our commitment to social justice and lifelong learning.

Our new Strategic Plan includes many components aimed at strengthening inclusion on our campus and in the community. One element of that work is to review and update the statement. I have struggled to find ways to improve the document until this week.

It is time to take the next step by acknowledging that our goal is not just to help students to learn and grow, but to prepare them to take courageous, peaceful action. We must commit to steeling them to become engaged agents for the “Change they wish to see in the world.”[1]

Brooks noted that “America is a diverse country joined more by a common future than by common pasts.” That future will be inescapably shaped by those pasts. It is up to us to prepare and to be leaders capable and committed to making that future the one King outlines at the end of his Birmingham epistle:

Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.

[1] Mahatma Gandhi

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Learning Is a Verb

A lot has been written about higher education being forever changed in the wake of COVID-19. Much has been aimed at how this disruption will drive the final nail into the coffin of an outmoded business model, but just as much speculation has been focused on the process of teaching and learning.

Teaching and learning will inevitably change, but all of higher education will not migrate to a virtual environment. What teaching and learning during the pandemic has proved to faculty and students is that some aspects of the academic enterprise are better online, some are worse, some are fundamentally impossible, and, in some instances, it’s a tie.

Applied disciplines like the performing arts and laboratories include many tactile components. It is true that much can be learned by watching and listening to great performers, but kinesthetic learning requires engaging in the practice. Likewise, there is much to be learned from the interpretation of data for a lab report, but developing “lab hands” and facility using research instruments comes from doing the lab.

I have had dozens of students tell me their biggest take away from this spring was that they preferred learning together in community. I know this is true, and I believe that in many cases they learn better together too, but many of our students had their best semesters in terms of grades.

We need to honestly evaluate the successes and failures of the recent global experiment in remote education. What worked, what didn’t, and most importantly, why? Is there a pattern in the types of material, in the types of learners, in the selected modality of delivery? Do synchronous and asynchronous deliveries benefit certain subjects or certain students?

Asynchronous formats accommodate students who are sharing technology access with other family members or have turbulent schedules, but synchronous formats allow discussion and debate. These are limitations of remote learning that are exacerbated by economic disparity.

Three decades ago, one of the mantras in pedagogy was that professors needed to move from being “the sage on the stage to the guide on the side.” It was clever the first time someone said it, but it was hardly a novel idea. Socrates had made the point over 2400 years ago.

The truth is that mere content delivery shouldn’t be a class. If reading a book, watching a documentary, or following a LinkedIn Learning module will duplicate the learning outcomes of a university course, an opportunity to do more has been missed.

This has been the shortcoming of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). They are immensely efficient in reaching many students in a single course, but they have failed to revolutionize higher education because students are not actively engaged.

NYU and WCBS pioneered the MOOC concept with Sunrise Semester, which presented university lectures on early-morning television as correspondence courses beginning in 1957. Distance learning had been introduced in the previous century, the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle (CLSC) began in 1878. It is the oldest continuous book club in America. Participants read the annual selections and can graduate after completing 12 titles. The critical component is extensive discussions of the readings during the Chautauqua season.

Knowledge is a set of nouns. Learning is a verb. Many of us have recently found that we are much more capable of delivering knowledge remotely than we had imagined, but we have also reaffirmed the importance of applying that knowledge. Deep learning requires reflection, analysis, and synthesis.

This is the foundation of a liberal education, putting knowledge into action. The dialectic approach of the seminar is a direct descendent of Socratic learning. This is where students learn to build and test ideas. It is the competitive advantage of a residential liberal arts college

The collection and delivery of knowledge content can be enhanced and expanded through technology. To make the best transformation of education in the coming months and years, we need to critically identify the elements of teaching and learning that can only be achieved together and focus our future in-class and synchronous efforts on those activities. 

The classroom has been flipped, let’s make the most of it.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Washington’s Disappointment

Washington’s Disappointment

In the midst of a pandemic that has already taken more American lives than the Vietnam War, we are witnessing organized protests calling for businesses to reopen and preventive actions to be lifted in direct contradiction to medical and scientific expertise. Mobs, including demonstrator brandishing firearms and confederate battle flags, are demanding that states ignore the best advice from the most qualified experts because their freedom is evidently more precious than the health and safety of the general populous.

Serendipitously, I recently received an anthology of Richard Hofstadter’s writings as the newest installment in my subscription from Library of America. This collection begins with his book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, for which he won his second Pulitzer Prize in history.

It is fascinating examination of how the “red scare” of in the middle of the 20th century had deep roots in American history. Anti-intellectualism was the common thread over time. Hofstadter posits that knowledge and intellectual capacity became “unpopular” because they represented power.

“The Founding Fathers were sages, scientists, men of broad cultivation, many of them apt in classical learning, who used their wide reading in history, politics, and law to solve the exigent problems of their time.”[1] He notes that soon after the United States was formed, political challengers orchestrated campaigns that drew an imaginary divide between the intellectual and the practical.

Hofstadter cites a letter Charles Carroll wrote to Alexander Hamilton, in which he says Jefferson was, “Too theoretical and fanciful a statesman to direct with prudence the affairs of this extensive and growing confederacy.” Hofstadter notes, “Even in its earliest days, the egalitarian impulse in America was linked with a distrust for what in its germinal form may be called political specialization and in its later forms expertise.”[2]

It is astonishing that a nation founded by intellectuals has been so frequently shaped by widespread rejection of expertise. The Founding Fathers of this nation were also the founders of the American Philosophical Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. We are all well aware of the experiments and inventions of Jefferson and Franklin, but Adams, Rush, Madison, and Washington were actively engaged in the scientific discourse and discovery of the time.

Washington was one of the most scientifically advanced farmers in the colonies. He designed a variety of agricultural devices and systematically planted test beds for each crop, experimenting with different mixtures of seeds, fertilizers, and planting techniques, using the most successful models to increase the productivity of his plantations.[3]

As a young man, Washington had contracted small pox in Barbados. He nearly died, but upon recovery, was immune. This protected him from outbreaks during the Revolutionary War, but in 1777, that disease was as much a threat to the Continental Army as the British.

Washington consulted the expertise of his Medical Director, John Morgan, to determine if variolation, a then controversial process by which individuals were inoculated by being scratched with thorns exposed to the pustules of small pox suffers, could protect his troops from an outbreak. The application produced significantly reduced sickness than the actual disease followed by immunity. Washington ordered 40,000 troops to be variolated. In one year, the infection rate among his army dropped from 17% to 1%. It may well have won the war. [4]

Just as he recognized that engaging the best expertise was critical to his success as a military leader, Washington believed that the development of experts was paramount to the advancement of the new republic.

In his final “Annual Message to Congress,” Washington called for the creation of a national military college, which came to fruition, and a national university that did not. He was an important benefactor in the founding of two liberal arts colleges that bear his name: Washington College in Maryland and Washington and Lee University in Virginia. Our first president believed in the importance of these “Seminaries of learning,” but he believed that the scale of achievement he dreamt for our nation would require an investment that only a nation could make.

The Assembly to which I address myself, is too enlightened not to be fully sensible how much a flourishing state of the Arts and Sciences, contributes to National prosperity and reputation. True it is, that our Country, much to its honor, contains many Seminaries of learning highly respectable and useful; but the funds upon which they rest, are too narrow, to command the ablest Professors, in the different departments of liberal knowledge, for the Institution contemplated, though they would be excellent auxiliaries.

Amongst the motives to such an Institution, the assimilation of the principles, opinions and manners of our Country men, but the common education of a portion of our Youth from every quarter, well deserves attention. … In a Republic, what species of knowledge can be equally important? and what duty, more pressing on its Legislature, than to patronize a plan for communicating it to those, who are to be the future guardians of the liberties of the Country? [5]

The Founding Fathers were as flawed as they were foresighted. They brought forth the Bill of Rights, but they also implemented the Alien and Sedition Acts. They established a democratic republic in which only a minority held suffrage and in which slavery was tolerated, but they had the foresight to create a government that had the capacity to evolve toward a better ideal.

They also recognized that the successful evolution of their political experiment would require leaders well versed in the all the liberal arts: the sciences, humanities, the fine arts, and social sciences. They sponsored the creation of many of our leading colleges to foster the next generation of leaders; they founded leading intellectual societies to review and disseminate the best scientific knowledge of the day; and they dreamed that the United States would develop the intellectual expertise necessary for their young republic to flourish.

Were he to witness these recent demonstrations refuting the collective guidance of our best experts, imagine Washington’s disappointment.

[1] Hofstadter, Richard: Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Uncollected Essays 1956-1965, edited by Sean Wilentz, 163. New York: Library of America, 2020.
[2] Ibid., 168-169.
[3] Tom Shachtman: Gentlemen Scientist and Revolutionaries: The Founding Fathers in the Age of Enlightenment, 8. New York: St. Martin’s, 2014.
[4] Ibid., 101-112.

[5] George Washington: “Eighth Annual Message to Congress,” 7 December 1796.


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