William G. Bowen

Sure. Close interaction between students and professors and learning that occurs peer-to-peer in residence halls are part of the considerable value offered by a liberal arts college. But Colby and its kin cannot dismiss digital technology as a potential part of their pedagogy, said Willam G. Bowen, president emeritus of Princeton, past president of the Andrew Mellon Foundation, and Colby’s third distinguished bicentennial lecturer.

“Heresy of heresies,” he said in an address March 18, “I suspect—though no one knows as yet—that such pedagogies may even be helpful in intimate, bucolic settings such as this one.”

Bowen, whom President William D. Adams introduced as “one of the most-respected voices in higher education,” recommended a portfolio approach to address a mix of teaching strategies and learning styles. “We should remain open to the possibility that emerging technologies can complement more-traditional forms of teaching,” Bowen said, “and thereby allow valuable faculty time to be put to higher-value uses, such as seminar instruction and one-on-one guidance of independent work.”

In his talk (full text is online), Bowen covered three major topics: digital technologies: friend or foe, America’s shortcomings when it comes to equity in educational and socioeconomic opportunities, and the question should we—can we—teach values?

He praised Colby for some of its historic decisions: shedding its sectarian roots very early, condemning slavery, admitting women earlier than its peers, emphasizing graduates’ obligations to give back to society, and striving to be inclusive. He also recognized that Colby has been “a juggernaut” in the adoption of digital resources of scholarly literature and art images he helped to create—JSTOR and ARTstor, which he described as part of the future “shared shelf.”

In discussing the role of technology in higher education, he concluded, “I remain a strong proponent of the goals of traditional liberal arts colleges, even as I believe that the means of serving these goals must continue to evolve. These colleges should continue to act on the belief that they are there to help students learn to live a life, not simply to earn a living.”

He reviewed what he characterized as the lackluster performance of the country when it comes to providing equal opportunity in higher education, which is a primary engine of socioeconomic mobility. Connecting that topic with his first subject, he noted that MOOCs, (massive open online courses), and online learning, though at one level they open remarkable educational opportunities to anyone with a computer and Internet access, have real potential to widen the gap between the “haves” and “have-nots” in higher education.

As states struggle to fund higher education, they are likely to rely more on online learning to save money, despite the fact that less-prepared students drop out of online courses at a higher rate than better-prepared students. He advocated supporting “political leadership that is willing to tackle the need to promote opportunity.”

Finally addressing whether colleges can or should teach values, he said “yes” and “yes.” That sentiment was reinforced in a quote he used to introduce the talk, a passage from Nobel-winning economist Sir Arthur Lewis, who said, “If our graduates do not help to keep civilization together, to reduce the sum of human misery and to advance the cause of human brotherhood, though our university will have laboured in vain.”

A transcript of Bowen’s distinguished bicentennial lecture is online. The series concludes April 8, when Pomona College President David Oxtoby gives a lecture titled “Chaos and Creativity: Liberal Education for the 21st Century.”