July 01, 2012

Staying true to our mission, and each other

Times change, people evolve, and love grows cold. If I’d ever doubted it, I was convinced of this truth as recent news came from Austria that two giant tortoises, together a whopping 115 years, were calling the whole thing off.

Longtime mates Bibi and Poldi, both born in 1897 according to The Independent’s report, would no longer be sharing an enclosure at the zoo they had long called home. Zookeepers, we’re told, were “shattered” by the breakup. And why not? If Bibi and Poldi’s love could fizzle after more than a century, what relationship is safe?

After a long love-fest of our own, if you’re to believe the headlines, higher education is currently on the outs with a once-adoring public. “Is College Worth It?” Time Magazine recently asked. “Are too many young people going to college?” The Wall Street Journal questioned. Billionaire Peter Thiel is less quizzical. He’s paying hand-picked, would-be students $100,000 a year to forgo college to work on projects that, he says, will benefit them more.

While I do not want to be too thin-skinned, it feels as if the attack is coming from all sides and without much concern for anything that remotely smacks of evidence.

My sensitivity isn’t helped by the fact that since the downturn in 2008, I have attended a sequence of depressing seminars and meetings where the future of liberal arts colleges and the college education credential is debated. And so I couldn’t resist acknowledging this stormy forecast, nor its weaknesses, when I addressed our most recent class of graduates. Somewhere in this murkiness is the germ of an exceptionally important debate. One in which you, as keepers and friends of Beloit College, need to become conversant.

As I said at Commencement, and weeks later at Reunion, the thin edges of this national dialogue both cut and confound me. Like many others in academe (presidents or otherwise), I am keenly aware of how confused, evidence-challenged, and remarkably unnuanced it often is.

As I said to the class of 2012, the national debate on higher education confounds vastly divergent approaches to teaching and learning and, ultimately, the value of a degree. The national debate confounds approaches to teaching and learning that can be expected to produce vastly different outcomes in the short run and even more so over a lifetime. The national debate ignores evidence about approaches to education that work. And to make matters worse, the national debate on higher education is mired in a ridiculously short-run view of the economy and a poorly recognized perspective on the future.

Most importantly, the education to which this shrill national dialogue is directed is unrecognizable at this college.

The defining qualities of the future are change and complexity. People entering this world who are unable to adapt to transformational opportunities will be destined for attenuated lives or worse. People entering this world who are unable to see problems from multiple perspectives, working with multiple people from multiple backgrounds using multiple tools, and culling through multiple—innumerable—sources of information, will be lost.

But Beloit College is a place whose mission embraces change and complexity and whose lived experience mocks this shrill national dialogue. The evidence sat right in front of me when I last aired this concern. And it was just as true a few weeks after Commencement when I mingled with and met hundreds of alumni at our first summer Reunion.

Yes, there are issues of value that need answering at the national level. And certainly, there are those for whom college offers no allure nor compelling offers. But while that’s true, for so many students, there are colleges like Beloit that, as the book says, “change lives,” and by extension, the world. And so we will continue to do what we do so well.

If we must do it without the passionate support of the national press, so be it. The love affair here continues.

From here, unapologetically and proudly, at Chapin’s desk,­­­

President Scott Bierman

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