David Oxtoby, president of Pomona College

As a renowned scientist, David Oxtoby knows 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).

As president of Pomona College, chair-elect of Harvard’s Board of Overseers, and a leading voice in American higher education, particularly liberal arts education, he said, “I think these steps, of breaking down and putting together, characterize many of the activities we engage in through the curricula of our colleges.”

The final speaker in Colby’s Distinguished Bicentennial Lecture series on April 8, Oxtoby argued that while the focus in higher education has long been on analysis, there is compelling evidence that more attention needs to be paid to synthesis. Liberal arts colleges, he said “should be centers of interdisciplinary innovation in order to foster this type of synthesis.”

                 Full transcript of David Oxtoby’s address

The important problems that confront humanity, “from poverty to climate change to religious intolerance,” will require the synthesis of contributions from many academic disciplines if we are to find solutions, he said. In that pursuit 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-brain thinking.

Oxtoby, drew on experience, literature, and neuroscience to illustrate his points. “The value of a liberal education is that it can help a linear thinker to develop the ability to make leaps of insight, just as it can help a nonlinear thinker to reason critically about a complex problem,” he said. “Both dimensions are important for the whole student.”

“A key goal of college education should be to help students deal with ambiguity and to realize that ambiguity is a central part of life,” he said. “The purpose of a liberal education at Colby College, at Pomona College, or at any of our institutions, is to develop habits of mind that lie between hard work and discipline on the one hand and creative inspiration on the other.”

Full text of Oxtoby’s address at Colby is online.