This article is a partial transcript of an episode of the EdSurge Podcast. For the full interview, listen here.
The pandemic has led to big questions about the value of higher education, and that has been especially true of liberal arts colleges. And some of the most powerful critiques have come from within.
Perhaps the best example is a book written by two longtime professors called “The Post-Pandemic Liberal Arts College: A Manifesto for Reinvention.” Both are emeritus scholars from selective institutions: Steven Volk, an emeritus history professor at Oberlin College, and Beth Benedix, an professor emeritus of world literature, religious studies and community engagement at DePauw University who is also founder and director of The Castle, a nonprofit organization that partners with public schools.
At the start of the COVID-19 health crisis, the two already harbored frustrations with the workings of their colleges. While the mission statements of these small liberal arts colleges promised a focus on building students into well-rounded citizens, and a commitment to diversity, Volk and Benedix saw instead a growing arms race to build shinier facilities to cater to students from a small set of elite private high schools and wealthy public ones.
The professors channeled their longtime dissatisfactions into a sweeping plan for change, resulting in their book-length manifesto.
Three years after the start of the pandemic, we decided to sit down with the authors, to ask about their proposal for change, and how they think things have gone since proposing it.
Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts, or use the player on this page.
EdSurge: What is the one thing that you feel is most broken about liberal arts colleges that led you to write this manifesto?
Steven Volk: I was driven to go into higher education by the potential of education to upset social hierarchies and to open possibilities that didn’t exist before. And my frustration was that fundamentally what we were doing was recreating hierarchies and cementing in place the kind of inequities that I and many others had really hoped would be solved by providing education. We became, as many people have written, the engines of inequality.
Beth Benedix: For me, what was at the root of it is that I’m a teacher’s kid. My mom taught remedial reading, K-5. My aunt is a teacher. I think my classroom always felt more like a primary or secondary classroom environment than a college classroom. And I always felt like a little bit of an imposter in the academy in terms of the fact that I think that the material that I’m so lit up by is existential literature and religious studies. I’m searching for truth, and I want to search alongside my students. And I’ve always looked at my students as fellow travelers, much to the disdain of my colleagues.
And there are all of these structures in place that continue to create this gatekeeper kind of role. On the one hand, we have all of these ‘diversity, equity, inclusion and access,’ things — these kind of check boxes. Let’s do the training over here, and then we’ll all be trained in how to do those things and student-centeredness.
And the more I looked around, the less student-centered the gig seemed to feel.
And that came really into focus as we were heading up toward the pandemic. … How do we create a learning environment that really is rich and deep and is about the questions that are driving all of us, and less about the kind of the credentialing and the check boxes and all of those things that suck our good energy away from us?
It seems like liberal arts colleges would be the places that would be student-centered, where professors would help students explore their ideas. Is that not what’s happening?
Benedix: I think [professors] think that’s what they’re doing. Steve and I both love the liberal arts model, and we believe there’s something unique about the liberal arts model that if it were accessible, if only it were accessible to everybody who wanted to have that experience, it could open up possibilities that maybe they hadn’t thought possible before.
What was happening in my experience is that for all of our talk of interdisciplinarity and creating connections among disciplines, we were not doing that. The burden was on the students to make those connections. And I reject that it should be that way. It’s not that we should be handholding in any way, shape or form, but that the system should be set up for students to easily be able to understand why they’re doing what they’re doing and what that education is for — and how it can be relevant and authentic and connected to paths that they want to pursue.
We have such a bipolar sort of approach to education in the liberal arts world, in that we’re resistant to calling it a path to a career because that somehow diminishes it and turns it into a vocational school or something like that. And then on the other hand, we so desperately want to preserve our own silos and our own identities as a, you know, I’m a comparative literature person, so I’ll pick on that, right? And so we get these silos, we get these departmental trenches that we dig ourselves more deeply into. And I think that, I don’t know if that’s unique to the liberal arts, but I think it’s magnified when you say you have a mission that wants to break down those silos. And then what we’re doing in those places is really kind of solidifying them.
Volk: Just to build on that, here we are on a small campus where things can happen. And still, as Beth is saying, we remain firmly sort of embedded in 19th-century disciplines and in structures that have been set up so far in the past that they make no sense at the present time.
And we have the potential to solve them because we have a small campus. Even the very simple thing of, ‘Why is all the history department located on the third floor of one building as opposed to integrating all across the campus?’ It’s the fact that we actually can do these things and yet choose not to do them. That is very frustrating.
And yet your college is in great demand and so many students get rejected?
Volk: Exactly. But then I hear my colleagues moaning because we have gone from, you know, fifth in the U.S. News [college rankings] to seventh to 10th to 12th. And they’re reading that as, ‘Oh, we’re not getting very good students.’ And that just rankles me, the idea that you should only teach the elite of the students because you are the elite of the colleges, as opposed to seeing our mission as … ‘I will love to teach anyone who’s sitting in my class, let’s engage, let’s do it.’
Your book came out near the start of the pandemic. How are you feeling about where the conversation is going now?
Volk: I am much more pessimistic about where the situation is going post-pandemic.
I mean, what we learned in the pandemic is that we have the capacity to change on a dime — to learn when we have to, to adopt new practices. Now we think the pandemic is over and everything has not only gone back to the old ways, but has intensified. I am appalled by the ways in which we have not become student-centered. We have let the student-as-consumer drive everything.
Benedix: I’m afraid I agree. On the one hand there was a wonderful article that came out in The Chronicle a few weeks ago, I think it was called “Teaching in the Time of Apathy.” It was wonderful. There’s more and more in the conversation about creating a learning environment that engages students. And I’m very gratified to see that because I think that has been something that we haven’t really truly been talking about. … I think that conversation feels like it’s become more part of the fabric of how we’re talking in higher ed.