William Bowen
William Bowen
Martha Nussbaum
Martha Nussbaum
David Oxtoby
David Oxtoby

Celebrating 200 years since Colby was chartered, a theme often repeated this year was the importance of looking ahead as well as remembering the past. In that spirit the Distinguished Bicentennial Lecture Series brought four leading American intellectuals to campus to talk about the future of the liberal arts.

David Oxtoby, president of Pomona College and chair-elect of the Harvard Board of Overseers, wrapped up the series April 8 with an address that envisioned a bright future for colleges like Colby and Pomona.

Oxtoby followed a March 18 lecture by William Bowen, president emeritus of Princeton, past president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and “one of the most-respected voices in higher education,” according to President William D. Adams in the introduction. Earlier speakers in the series were Wendy Ewald, a pioneer in visual literacy and learning, and Martha Nussbaum, a political philosopher on the University of Chicago faculty.

Oxtoby, a renowned scientist, described two approaches to the study of chemistry: analysis (breaking something down to see what it’s made of) and synthesis (combining materials to make a more complex compound). “These steps of breaking down and putting together,” he said, “characterize many of the activities we engage in through the curricula of our colleges.”

While the focus in higher education has long been on analysis, he said, echoing Ewald’s thesis, more attention needs to be paid to synthesis. Liberal arts colleges “should be centers of interdisciplinary innovation in order to foster this type of synthesis,” Oxtoby said.

“From poverty to climate change to religious intolerance,” he said, solving the problems we confront will require contributions from many disciplines. He advocated interdisciplinary work and more attention to nonlinear, intuitive, and visual “left-brain” thinking. Ultimately, he argued, “the people who will be successful are those who can integrate their entire brains,” right and left hemispheres.

In his talk Bowen led with a challenge: that Colby and its kin cannot dismiss digital technology as a potential part of their teaching. “Heresy of heresies,” he said, “I suspect—though no one knows as yet—that such pedagogies may even be helpful in intimate, bucolic settings such as this one.”

“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.”

Nussbaum discussed her recent work, particularly European laws targeting Muslim customs, in a Feb. 21 talk titled The New Religious Intolerance: Overcoming the Politics of Fear.

Ewald’s talk, Secret Games: A 21st-Century Education, was covered in the winter Colby magazine.