“New Times Always, Old Time We Cannot Keep”
Colby College Bicentennial Distinguished Lecture
William G. Bowen
March 18, 2013
I am honored to be here—and I should say right away that I feel at home, having gone to another Baptist-inspired residential college, situated on its own hill, and located in its own small (New England-style) town. It is a privilege, nothing less than that, to celebrate with you the bicentennial of a truly great college and the achievements of a truly great president. The able biologists here at Colby should find a way to clone President Adams and the college should then allow his clone to continue to hold sway!
This college is a long-lived, lasting, embodiment of what Sir Arthur Lewis, the Nobel prize-winning economist from St. Lucia, called “the tribute that men pay to brain.” Arthur went on to put this idea into an historical perspective that antedates, probably by several millennia, the founding of Colby. “Not very long ago,” he said, “men lived in caves, or under the shadow of trees. Their lives were dominated by fear—fear of the elements, of drought and flood and fire; fear of animals; and fear of other men, who wandered around in families or tribes ready to exterminate each other. The human race has pulled itself up from this by handing down from generation to generation knowledge of two sets of principles, those relating to controlling nature, which we call science, and principles relating to controlling human behaviour, which we call ethics. Human life as we know it today is based on accumulated science, and accumulated ethical principles enshrined in laws and in the conventions of decent behaviour.”
Sir Arthur then added, in addressing a university community in the struggling country of Guyana: “The supremely important task of receiving this knowledge, adding to it, and handing it down to the next generation has always devolved on a very small body of people who specialized in using their brains. They were known as … clerks. … Here we come to the fundamental purpose of education: to produce young men and women who will join the small band of clerks stretching backwards through history and forward through generations yet unborn. Who will receive our truths, embellish them, defend them against numerous and powerful enemies, and pass them on to the next generation. 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, then our university will have laboured in vain.”
Please note the forward-looking character of Sir Arthur’s charge. The title of my talk tonight reflects that same mindset: “New times always, old time we cannot keep.”
It has become commonplace to berate colleges and universities for their rigidities and alleged inability to adapt. Sometimes that is a fair indictment; more often, however, it is not. Just as we can be too stuck in the mud, so too can we be too eager to jump on the glitziest bandwagon in sight. These days, especially, I worry about many institutions doing A, B, and C just to be “doing something,” just to avoid being “left behind,” and just to avoid a risk of being downgraded by mindless national rating schemes.
At a time of rapid change in higher education—of transformational change in the view of many—it is well to have an opportunity such as this to reflect on ideas and values that are anything but transitory. A wise friend of mine said years ago that it is valuable for an institution to have to contend with “the heavy weight of the past.” Change we must, but in contemplating change it is essential to have something to push up against.
In preparing these remarks, I have enjoyed reading a bit about the history of Colby, including the insightful rendering of its evolution provided by President Adams just over two weeks ago in his own Bicentennial Address. This is a great college today in part because it has, historically, been ahead of its time even as it has been deeply rooted in its past. Colby shed its sectarian roots early; it embraced at least an incipient version of coeducation sooner than almost all other formerly all-male colleges; it was in the forefront of the battle against slavery; it has long emphasized the obligations of the privileged to give back to society; and it has for years demonstrated the importance of being inclusive. This is an impressive record to build upon, “to push up against,” if you will, as Colby contemplates what “new times” may bring.
Digital Technologies: Friend or Foe?
In thinking about our collective future in reasonably concrete terms, I want to begin by talking a bit about digital technologies and whether Colby should regard such technologies as friend or foe. Having phrased the question that way, I immediately reject the categorical thinking implied by the phrasing. In my view, all of us should avoid “either-or” thinking. It is wise, I believe, for residential liberal arts colleges such as Colby to take full advantage of digital technologies where it makes sense to do so, but to sidestep the trap of emulating other places that may seek to use such technologies to replace features of present-day college life that should be retained.
Colby has, in fact, followed this simple injunction, by being what one of my colleagues at ITHAKA has called a “juggernaut” when it comes to adopting and using two digital resources that I had some hand in creating: JSTOR and ARTstor. Colby has been a leader of the pack in using these digital collections of scholarly literature and art images, and, more than that, in helping to shape the future of “shared shelf” (a new ARTstor platform designed to facilitate the sharing of digital materials of all kinds).
A tougher and more controversial set of questions concerns the use of online learning models of one kind or another in classroom teaching. This is sometimes said to be the “age of MOOCs” (massive open online learning courses). These courses, usually offered free of charge, have attracted hundreds of thousands of registrants from all over the world. Some worthy defenders of traditional face-to-face teaching have attacked the MOOCs and other online teaching models as poor substitutes for the personalized modes of instruction for which places like Colby are famous. But, again, there is no need for “either-or” thinking.
In my view, sophisticated forms of interactive online learning (whether delivered by MOOCs or through some other approach) have real promise as a way of helping students master basic concepts in courses such as statistics. What is a t-test? What is a confidence interval? My colleagues at ITHAKA and I have demonstrated that in certain settings, especially at large public universities facing drastic resource constraints, machine-guided instruction can produce at least comparable learning outcomes in basic courses in which there are agreed answers to key questions—perhaps at appreciably less cost than face-to-face instruction, which in such settings is often provided by instructors of varied qualifications.
Heresy of heresies, 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 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 my experience, students benefit enormously (I know that I did) from tough-minded correction of poor writing by dedicated teachers; but instruction of this kind is enormously time-consuming and expensive. Finding ways to husband the resources to afford such tutelage is going to be a big challenge in straitened economic circumstances, as President Adams reminded us in his Baccalaureate Address; the pay-off is, however, huge.
Some believe that online pedagogies can also work well in teaching discursive topics of other kinds, and there is some evidence (most of it anecdotal) that the worldwide sharing of perspectives in subjects such as introductory sociology can be highly instructive. On this question, as well as on so many others pertaining to online learning, the jury is out, and will be out for some time. And, of course, a key question has to do with trade-offs: with the availability, value, and cost of alternative teaching methods.
In thinking about the future of curricular development, I am, as I have said on other occasions, an advocate of a “portfolio” approach that can provide a carefully calibrated mix of learning styles. This mix will vary by institutional type, and liberal arts colleges should put much more weight on seminars, discussion groups, and directed study than larger institutions can hope to do. Nonetheless, even the most elite and most selective colleges and universities, which may face less pressure than other places to change, should ask if failing to participate, at least to some degree, in the evolution of online learning models is to their advantage in the long run. Their students, along with others of their generation, will expect to use digital resources—and to be trained in their use.
More generally, there is everything to be said for heeding former Harvard president Derek Bok’s admonition that a determined effort should be made to help faculty teach better, in part by being sure that they are aware of, and take account of, the insights of research in fields such as cognitive science. Liberal arts colleges, in particular, should put a real premium on doing all that can be done to ensure that excellent teaching actually occurs, and is not reflected solely in the language of promotional materials, abstract pronouncements, and inspirational talks.
Next, a few words, if I may, about styles of teaching in the personalized settings that are, and should continue to be, the hallmarks of liberal arts colleges. A great teacher of mine, Jacob Viner, echoed Jeremy Bentham in decrying “nonsense on stilts,” which Professor Viner described as “a type of sophisticated nonsense, of ignorant learning, which only the [well] educated are capable of perpetuating.” Viner loved to tell this story: “A woman in a shop asked for a drinking bowl for her dog. When the clerk replied that he had no drinking bowls especially for dogs, the woman said that any drinking bowl would do. The clerk, having found one for her, suggested that he have the word ‘dog’ painted on it. ‘No thanks,’ said the woman. ‘It is not necessary. My husband doesn’t drink water [from a bowl] and my dog can’t read.’” Viner’s conclusion: “Learning should be kept in its place.”
There is, of course, a critically important role for learning in a college such as this, assuming that it is “kept in its place.” In the most selective residential institutions, the right kind of learning occurs more or less constantly, as often, or more often, out of the classroom as in it. This cliché, repeated by all presidents of residential colleges and universities, conveys real truth. Here we see clearly the limits of purely online modes of teaching. Late night, peer-to-peer exchanges, enriched by body language that sometimes tells us more than computer-generated text, offer students hard-to-replicate access to the perspectives of other smart people whom they have come to know well. And by no means all interesting questions are rooted in classroom-like inquiry. I remember well an undergraduate at Princeton extolling (and now I quote her) “the evening rap sessions that began promisingly enough with high-flown debates on free will and determinism and descended by dawn to the inevitable indictment of the frailties of the human male.”
Grasping complexity—embracing it—is a critical capacity to be learned earlier in life rather than later. Liberal arts colleges have a special capacity, I think, to encourage students to learn to avoid the polarized thinking that is, sad to say, becoming the standard of our day. Einstein was right in asserting that: “Everything should be made as simple as possible … but not more so!” Dilemmas are real and should be acknowledged, not dismissed by sloganeering. Isaiah Berlin’s famous book, Russian Thinkers, is full of examples of the dilemmas faced by nineteenth century Russian writers, as many of them sought to balance a yearning for absolutes with the complex visions that they simply could not push from their minds—and to do so in a terribly troubled time. Berlin writes with special empathy about Alexander Herzen and others, “who see, and cannot help seeing, many sides of a case. . . . The middle ground,” he wrote, “is a notoriously exposed, dangerous, and ungrateful position.”5 So it is. Nonetheless, students need to be both thoughtful enough and courageous enough to occupy it when that is where hard thought takes them.
Online technologies will continue to improve, and we should never underestimate their potential. But I am skeptical that they will ever substitute for the skillful teacher in encouraging students to learn key habits of mind, including both how to cope with complexity and how to develop a healthy respect for evidence—combined with the ability to separate evidence from assertion. Students should be pressed to feel an incorrigible need to “find the facts.” There is a wonderful little book called The Fastest Hound Dog in the State of Maine that illustrates this mindset. It is “thoroughly Maine,” the author suggests, to “want the full facts before negotiating an opinion.” He provides this exchange between two people riding on a train:
“Is that a white horse?”
“Seems to be from this side.”
Suffice it to say that 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.
An “Opportunity” Agenda for America?
Following my theme of “new times always,” I want now to turn to a distressing aspect of our prospects. I am talking about our failing efforts as a country to make anything like as much progress as is desirable in promoting opportunity.
In giving the Atwell lecture at this year’s meeting of the American Council on Education, Brit Kirwan, the exceedingly able Chancellor of the University System of Maryland, bemoaned the difficulty we are having in making real the substance of the American Dream—the belief that a person’s status at birth is not supposed to determine his or her status throughout life. The facts are sobering. According to Kirwan, “a child born into a family in the highest quartile of income has a roughly 85 percent chance of earning a college degree. A child born into a family in the lowest quartile of income has a less than 8 percent chance of earning a degree.” That is a ten-fold difference! Studies at Stanford and at the University of Michigan find that education gaps between the rich and poor in this country are growing, not shrinking, and Kirwan reminds us of OECD data showing that “children of less-educated parents in the U.S. have a tougher time climbing the educational ladder than in almost any other developed country.” Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel prize-winner, has called equal opportunity “our national myth.”
We are in the throes of what Laura Tyson, an economist who chaired the Council of Economic Advisors under President Clinton, has termed a “vicious cycle.” In a piece for the New York Times last fall, Tyson argued that “Rising income inequality is breeding more inequality in educational opportunity, which results in greater inequality in educational attainment. That, in turn, undermines the intergenerational mobility upon which Americans have always prided themselves and perpetuates income inequality from generation to generation.”
President Adams has steadfastly aligned Colby with the notion of equal opportunity through both his policies and his personal generosity. Small as this college is, it can serve as an example for others. What is required is, first, a continuation of thoughtful admissions policies that take into account not only what applicants have achieved but the hurdles that they have had to leap along the way. Required, too, is a continuing commitment to provide need-based aid to as many qualified students as possible. And in this connection, I should say here what I have said elsewhere: we should avoid doctrinaire statements that decry asking students to incur tolerable amounts of debt and to do reasonable amounts of work to contribute to the costs of their education. “Merit aid wars,” which primarily redistribute able students from one institution to another and divert resources from more essential uses, should be avoided. Moreover, all of this assumes that Colby will also resist the “consumerist” tendencies evident in parts of higher education, whereby colleges spend too much on pandering to the desires of affluent parents and their children for amenities of one kind or another. There is an institutional obligation to make the best possible use of limited funds.
Assuming (as I do) that Colby makes every reasonable effort to be inclusive and to promote opportunity, there are broader tendencies in the land which all of us should worry about and seek to correct. One is the growing stratification in higher education, with widening gaps not just between students from different socioeconomic backgrounds, but also between institutions. For reasons too complicated to go into this evening, the resources available to the wealthiest institutions have grown more rapidly than the resources available down the line. Putting at least partly to one side my economist-bred inclination to love the market, I argue in my forthcoming book on higher education in a digital age that certain forms of competition, driven by large differences in institutional affluence, can have harmful effects overall.
Let me now connect these two dots on the higher education landscape: the online learning dot and the opportunity dot. As I have continued to ponder what is likely to transpire, I confess a serious worry. The promises that online learning offers, when it is said to promote educational opportunity worldwide (as it already has), could also have the perverse effect of widening the gap in American higher education between the “haves” and “have-nots.” It is highly likely that the intelligent application of the new technologies will improve education at the most privileged places—Colby among them. Is it also likely that, at esteemed liberal arts institutions like Colby (never mind at wealthy universities like Harvard), online approaches will be allowed to depersonalize instruction and deprive future generations of students of the wonderful residential experience so characteristic of these places? No way.
There will always be a coterie of families willing and able to pay the price for this kind of education, almost regardless of cost. As a believer in “revealed preference” (the notion that people reveal their beliefs through their actions), I am mightily impressed by the extraordinary number of applicants for places in the most selective (and expensive) institutions. And, as I have said, the children of affluent families are much more likely than other children to have not only the wherewithal to attend, but also the requisite qualifications for admission—in part because affluent families generally invest both far more money and far more time in the educational preparation of their children than do poorer families. Because of generous financial aid, the mix of students at the most selective colleges and universities will also include some number of highly talented individuals from poorer families. But how many such students are there likely to be in this rarified subset of American higher education? The number is going to be very, very small. So, as Stiglitz has put it, the problem is not that “social mobility is impossible, but that the upwardly mobile American is becoming a statistical oddity.”
At the same time, recent pronouncements by the governors of some states lead me to worry that the promise of online education—and, I would say, the “over-hyped” promise of not-very-good versions of online education that lack any face-to-face component—will lead to an ever more bifurcated system of higher education. States will be sorely tempted to use relatively inexpensive online programs to serve the less affluent, less well-prepared segment of potential college-goers. If I am right in thinking that residential campuses and the other features of the more selective sector of higher education will continue to confer major advantages on those students able to attend them, it is not hard to envision the “haves” continuing to gain ground on the “have-nots.”
To my way of thinking, this is a most depressing scenario. How can we prevent it from coming to pass? Or, at the very least, how can we retard the process of ever more stratification, of real bifurcation?
First, we can continue to do research that will tease out the effects of various types of online learning—and online learning comes in a great many flavors—focusing on learning outcomes for students from different backgrounds. A recent study by Columbia University’s Teachers College found that not-so-well-prepared students at community colleges who were given online instruction with no face-to-face component dropped out at much higher rates than students who had face-to-face learning experiences—a hardly surprising finding, but certainly not reassuring.
Second, we can work hard, as the City University of New York has done, to facilitate transfer flows so that able students who have done well in two-year institutions can move into appropriate four-year institutions without having to redo material or suffer unnecessarily from bureaucratic hassles. It should be possible to use online technologies of various kinds to improve advising, to solve scheduling problems that at present may prevent students from finding a seat in key gateway courses, and in general to ease the flow of students through the system.
Third, as citizens, we can lend our support to political leadership that is willing to tackle the need to promote opportunity. This will require asking governments both to spend somewhat more money on education than they might otherwise, and to spend money more effectively. It is possible, I believe, to achieve gains in productivity, and it is certainly appropriate for governors and legislators to charge colleges and universities that depend on taxpayer dollars with embracing the challenge of finding cost-effective ways to increase completion rates and reduce time-to-degree.
A concerted effort should also be made to discourage legislators and others from equating college success with how well students do in obtaining a decent-paying first job. I am certainly not against decent-paying jobs (who could be?), but it is important to adopt a longer time-horizon and look at age-graded earning profiles. Even more fundamental is the need to recognize that the value of a good education cannot be measured simply by studying earnings profiles of any kind. For many students, a good education is truly liberating. It opens one’s eyes to wonders of all kinds, to the benefits of a wide array of perspectives, and to one’s own capabilities—and limitations.
A truly liberating education creates opportunities for service as well as for money-making. No less a person than the distinguished Chicago economist, Frank Knight, known for his conservative views, warned against over-valuing what he called “the business game.” Many decades ago, in the midst of the depression of the 1930s, Knight issued this caution: “However favorable an opinion one may hold of the business game, he must be very illiberal not to concede that others have a right to a different view and that large numbers of admirable people do not like the game at all. It is then justifiable at least to regard as unfortunate the dominance of the business game over life, the virtual identification of social living with it, to the extent that has come to pass in the modern world.”
Should We—Can We—Teach Values?
My answers to these twin questions are, “yes” and “yes”—so long as we act sensibly. Mine is most definitely not a plea for indoctrination; nor is it a plea for pontification. I remember well the comment of President Robert Hutchins when he was urged to teach his students at the University of Chicago to do this, that, or the other thing. “All attempts to teach character directly will fail,” he said. “They degenerate into vague exhortations to be good which leave the bored listener with a desire to commit outrages which would otherwise have never occurred to him.” Hutchins added: “Hard intellectual work is doubtless the best foundation of character, for without the intellectual virtues, the moral sense rests on habit and precept alone.”
Surely it is possible, without enraging the ghost of Hutchins, to remind students that there is much to be said for generosity of spirit. It is healthy, a wise friend of mine liked to say, “to spend some time on other people’s problems.” Woodrow Wilson expressed a somewhat similar sentiment in his charge to the Princeton class of 1909: “Set out to fulfill obligations, to do what you must and to exact of others what they owe you, and all your days alike will end in weariness of spirit. … There is no pleasure to be had from the fulfillment of obligations … from doing what you know you ought to do. Nothing but what you volunteer has the essence of life, the springs of pleasure in it. These are the things you do because you want to do them, the things your spirit has chosen for its satisfaction.”
Let me now jump from Wilson in 1909 to our current decade and provide a second example of the kinds of questions we should pose on our campuses. I want to call your attention to a Baccalaureate address that is a favorite of mine, given in 2010 by Jeff Bezos, the hugely successful CEO of Amazon. The title Bezos gave to his talk is “We Are What We Choose.” He began by reciting a poignant story of a trip he took with his grandparents when he was 10 years old. While riding in their Airstream trailer, this precocious 10-year old laboriously calculated the damage to her health that his grandmother was doing by smoking. His conclusion was that, at two minutes per puff, she was taking nine years off her life. When he proudly told her of his finding, she burst into tears. His grandfather stopped the car and gently said to Jeff: “one day you’ll understand that it’s harder to be kind than clever.”
Bezos went on to talk about the difference between gifts and choices. “Cleverness,” he said, “is a gift, kindness is a choice. Gifts are easy—they’re given after all. Choices can be hard.” He then challenged the graduating students to think carefully about their future range of choices and whether they will opt to be “clever at the expense of others, or kind.” Colleges are well advised, I think, to find effective ways to help their students wrestle with just such questions—to think hard about their values. A willingness to enter such terrain, and not apologize for doing do, is one way liberal arts colleges can continue to distinguish themselves from institutions too timid to pose such questions.
As I end these remarks, I am reminded that one purpose of a bicentennial celebration is to cause all of us to think about how fortunate we are to have enjoyed the educational opportunities bequeathed to us (“given” to us) by our predecessors over two centuries and, at the same time, to recall the high purposes of Colby and the “choices” we must make—now and in the future.
There is a place for nostalgia, and even for sentiment, in all of this, but it needs to be rightly framed. Adlai Stevenson, Governor of Illinois and twice a presidential candidate, graduated from Princeton in 1922. He returned to Princeton in the spring of 1954 to speak at a senior class banquet. What he said then is, I believe, relevant to this setting, as we contemplate both “new times and old time [that] we cannot keep.” Here is what Governor Stevenson said: “I came here last night in darkness, after not having been here for some four or five years. I came with an old friend and an old classmate. We drove a little through the campus after dusk. It was soft, the air fresh, the beginning of spring.” After quoting a poem by Alfred Noyes that he had read as an undergraduate, Governor Stevenson said to the seniors: “This is the last of your springs. And now in the serenity and quiet of this lovely place, touch the depths of truth, feel the hem. You will go away with old, good friends. Don’t forget when you leave why you came.”