Address to the College Board

Robert J. Zimmer
The Liberal Arts in an Emergent World
Address to the College Board
New York City, October 26, 2011

Thank you very much. It is a great privilege for me to be here today at this annual College Board meeting. I particularly want to thank President Caperton for inviting me to speak, and I want to congratulate him on all that he has accomplished during his tenure as president.

I also want to say how meaningful it is to me to be speaking about education here in New York City. I am a product of the New York City public schools, having gone to P.S. 41 on 11th Street and later to Stuyvesant High School. While my later education took place outside New York, the City has always held a special place for me with regard to education.

Higher education in the United States is a complex enterprise, and those of you here today represent a key part of making this system work for hundreds of thousands of students each year. Your work has a major impact on helping students navigate this system and on their experience at college. It comes at a crucial and formative period in their lives. All of us need to recognize the responsibility we have for doing the best each year for these students, and I want to express my appreciation for the attention, care, and commitment that I know so many of you show in carrying out your work, representing your institution—whether a secondary school, two-year college, four-year college, or university—and helping students one by one.

Our higher education system in this country is complex in many ways. I have already alluded to the two-year colleges, four-year colleges, and universities it incorporates, but of course the system is much more complex than this categorization reflects. Each institution has its own qualities, emphases, and special capabilities. Even within one institution, student experiences can differ greatly. Moreover, there are multiple pressures on all our institutions. We have a fundamental commitment to education, but what education is the best? There are arguments that we should specialize more and arguments about the value of liberal arts education. There are pressures on institutions to show immediate value for the public and its students, while others argue that education is an investment in the future and a full life, whose immediate rewards do not capture its full value. There are financial pressures and sometimes—particularly but not exclusively for publicly funded institutions—political pressures. Parents are justifiably concerned about their children's future in an increasingly competitive and globally integrated world. Tuition costs and how to manage them are a major concern. For a number of institutions the competition to be admitted is fierce, creating one set of pressures, and for other institutions ensuring sufficient enrollment is a major concern, creating another set of pressures. Of course, the list of further pressures on our institutions is long.

In sum, we have a very complex landscape, one with which everyone in this room is familiar. But the resulting diversity of our institutions is a great strength of our national system. We offer a variety of options for students, which is essential as not all students need or want the same thing. But sometimes complexity can be confusing, which makes it very important to be clear about the fundamental principles and values that inform how we act in the face of multiple opportunities, challenges, and pressures.

One value that I believe all of us share is the importance of accessibility. Education has been and will continue to be the most important vehicle for changing the lives of individuals to be lives of opportunity, for changing the trajectory of families, and for ensuring an equitable social fabric in our country. Like many of you, we at the University of Chicago are deeply committed to accessibility independent of family economic circumstance, and thanks to a $100,000,000 gift by an anonymous alumnus we have recently been able to very significantly expand the support we offer to students from low income families. The resulting Odyssey program (and we have nicknamed the anonymous alumnus Homer) is an important component of our ongoing efforts to continue to improve such financial support. I know many of you are forceful advocates for issues related to accessibility, and I want to express my appreciation for this work that you do, and urge you to continue it. I promise that we at the University of Chicago will continue our own efforts in ever improving the opportunities for students from all backgrounds.

Today, I would like to focus on a much discussed but still very important question about our educational system, namely the value of liberal arts education and how to think about this across the variable nature of our institutions. While this question has been addressed many times, I would like to offer an additional and perhaps rather different perspective on this question than the perspectives which are often expressed. Of course, any such discussion demands some sort of definition of liberal arts education, and I will come to that in a moment.

Whatever the definition, the main issue about liberal arts education is often articulated as a choice, or at minimum an emphasis, between liberal arts education and specialization. On one side, the argument for specialization is typically that it is practical and directly helps students get a job after college, and in its extreme form this same argument asserts that liberal arts education is not practical and is somewhere between a waste of time and self-indulgence. On the other side, the arguments for liberal arts education usually fall into two categories. First, some argue that liberal arts education gives students an appreciation of the breadth and experience of human life and is therefore personally very enriching. Second, some argue that liberal arts education is important for developing good citizens—people who will be able to take a useful place in public discourse and voting. Those who make either of these arguments are usually against a great deal of specialization because to them it seems more like vocational training as compared to the higher callings of a fuller life and greater citizenship. Vocational work, they often argue, can come later.

You are, I am sure, familiar with this framing of the argument as well as the specific approaches I have described. I would venture to say that some of you have actually made these arguments on one side or the other of the question as framed.

What I will argue today is that while the above issues are very important, this is not the fullest framing of this question and that there is another framing that complements these arguments and can add significantly to thinking about the place of the liberal arts. This involves examining more closely three things: first, the nature of the world of work; second, the meaning of liberal arts, which in fact is often used to refer to somewhat different things; and third, the nature and importance of heterogeneity in our educational offerings, i.e., the importance of difference and options. I do not believe I will surprise anyone by saying a president of the University of Chicago will argue for liberal arts education. Indeed I will. But I hope by clarifying issues about the world of work, the nature of a specific approach to liberal arts, and the nature of the totality of our higher educational system that I can put at least a somewhat different light on this question, particularly as concerns the totality of our institutions represented here today. Following this discussion, I will turn to the "emergent world" of my title, two meanings that this term has, and the relevance of the entire discussion to issues about globalization and universities.

So let me begin with the world of work, and let me start by looking at work from an individual's perspective. Most jobs involve a person contributing to an endeavor involving more than the individual. This endeavor in turn is embedded in a whole much larger set of endeavors, which together make up a functioning society. So when an individual takes a job, they are entering into a way of contributing to some endeavor, and through that to society as a whole. So I view work as a noble activity, as a reflection of being part of a larger whole and finding a way to make a contribution to it. (This is admittedly a bit of a broad brush, but I think it is a useful perspective for today's discussion, even though it is a bit simplistic.) As educators, there is nothing wrong with helping students prepare themselves for the world of work, for a role in finding a way to contribute. This may seem obvious, but as you know it is not universally acknowledged. Not only do I think those of us in liberal arts institutions should not apologize for this, but I think we need to embrace this as valuable activity. Enabling students to live a fuller life and enabling them to be good citizens are very important aspects of what we do—but so too is the role of preparing them for entering the world of meaningful work.

This is from the perspective of one individual. What does the world of work look like as a whole? It is surely true, as one frequently hears, that the world has become more specialized and that significant detailed knowledge and experience are of great value. This, in turn, has led to a view of the world of work as a collection of separate specializations. When we speak of an education that prepares a student for such a world, we often have in our heads a metaphorical model of a collection of isolated buckets, each being a specialization, and that students need to get themselves into one bucket or another to find jobs.

But this model, the world of work as isolated specializations, is a fundamentally flawed conception. Why is that? Let's consider a few analogous examples. A body is made up of cells. Is the body a separate collection of isolated cells? Of course not. There are profound and complex interactions between them, and one cannot understand the body without understanding these relationships. Is a musical orchestra a collection of isolated musicians? Again, of course it isn't, because to understand an orchestra one needs to understand how music is made by the musicians playing in relationship to one another. Is a city just a collection of people? Again, of course not. There are interactions between people, organizations, cultures, and affiliations that define the city well beyond the simple collection of people.

Similarly, the world of work is not just an isolated collection of specializations. There are relationships between these specializations, some stronger, some weaker, some specializations with many connections, some with fewer. Many projects, including almost every project of significant scope, demand organizing, coordinating, and integrating multiple specializations. So the world of work involves not just the specializations, but the connections between them. Understanding the connections of specializations is as important to understanding the world of work and its functioning as understanding the connections and relationship of cells is to understanding human biology.

Let me describe these connections in two ways, first the way a mathematician might describe it, and second the way a humanist might describe it. A mathematician would look at this situation and say what you have is a network of linked specializations—in more geometric language, a network whose nodes are the specializations and where some of these nodes are joined by an edge representing a connection or relationship. In the mathematician's model, understanding a network involves understanding the nodes and the edges, i.e., both the specializations and the connections between them.

A humanist might describe this as each specialization existing in a context—and perhaps the most powerful lesson one learns from the humanities is that context is essential. It is very difficult to understand anything in isolation of context.

Whichever way you prefer, the lesson is that the world of work is much more than specializations—it is also how the specializations connect to each other. Importantly, each specialization is generally related and has to interact with many others.

What do these relations consist of and what is necessary to understand them? What does it entail to work productively with these edges, the connections of specializations? It demands being able to look at the perspective of others, to balance legitimate competing interests, to be able to focus on context as well as immediate content, to be able to evaluate different types of evidence, to effectively integrate different ideas and ways of doing things. In fact, this becomes particularly important, but not exclusively important, for roles of leadership in the world of work. Very often the issues that leaders need to deal with are precisely these sets of relationships and integration questions.

I had my own experience with this when I stepped out of a mostly specialized role as a mathematics professor to become chair of the mathematics department at Chicago, now quite a number of years ago. Rather than only thinking about how to prove new theorems about Lie group actions on manifolds, which is what I was working on at the time, and how to help students have a greater appreciation of mathematics, I was now called upon to exhibit a whole other collection of important skills. I needed to understand our graduate students, who came from all around the world, and the pressures on them. I needed to understand and articulate how mathematics fit into the education of students across the disciplines. I needed to be able to articulate the needs of our department in a compelling way to people who knew no mathematics and to understand the needs of other departments in whose disciplines I was not an expert. I needed to think about how to approach federal funding agencies and donors. Much of this new work involved putting myself in the position of someone else. It demanded challenging assumptions I took for granted to make them credible to others. It demanded an understanding of the cultures of students from different countries, understanding the values and perspectives of others, and how to blend together or choose between legitimate competing interests. In other words, I suddenly found myself calling upon so much that my liberal arts education as a student at Brandeis University helped to foster in me.

Now I do not want to pretend that I have given a detailed analysis of how to think about the world of work. But what I am asserting is that this discussion, even in its simplicity, adds an important dimension that creates a much more realistic and illuminating picture than the isolated buckets model.

Let's begin to relate this discussion of the world of work with our roles as educators. Preparing students for a role in the world of work means preparing them for a role in this network of linked specializations. This means they must deal with both the reality of nodes, i.e. specializations, and the reality of edges, i.e. linking and integrating specializations. Preparing students for dealing with specialization is a type of specialized training with which we are familiar. (Although even here I would caution that the nature of many particular specializations will evolve over time, so training students in a specialization needs to be rich enough to enable them to continue to learn to make the necessary contributions over time.) But in addition to preparing them for specializations, we must prepare them to deal with the linking and integrating of specializations. And it is here that I believe liberal arts education of a certain type provides great skills.

What do I mean by liberal arts education of a certain type? The difference between specialization and liberal arts is often described as knowing a lot about a little or knowing a little about a lot. In this description, liberal arts education is identified, of course, with knowing a little about a lot. Now knowing a little about a lot is fine and can be quite useful and rewarding. But by liberal arts education I mean much more than this. Namely, through the nature of this type of education one should learn multiple modes of inquiry, learn how to identify the power and limitations of argument, how to identify and challenge one's own assumptions, how to deal with legitimate competing arguments and interests, evaluate evidence both quantitative and non-quantitative, and integrate multiple perspectives. In other words, with the type of liberal arts education I am describing, one is prepared to deal with the complexity of the edges in the network that describes the world of work. Alternatively, one learns how to think about and understand context.

In this way, the difference between specialization and liberal arts education does not become equivalent to a dichotomy about preparing for work or focusing on other aspects of life. Specialization and liberal arts education in fact go together, hand in hand, in preparing students for the complexity of the world of work. Instead of knowing a lot about a little or knowing a little about a lot, I would argue for the model, based in part on understanding the world of work, to first, as Richard Holbrooke put it, know something about something, and second, to learn how to think, balance, put yourself in someone else's shoes, and integrate—i.e., learn to think in multiple ways about context.

What I have described here is essentially the approach we take, and take very seriously, at the University of Chicago. Although I believe very strongly in the education we offer—and the powerful achievements of our alumni all over the world are evidence for the efficacy of this education—I am not advocating that everyone drop whatever they are doing and try to do what we are doing. In fact, as I indicated at the beginning of my remarks, I am a great believer that the diversity of our institutions of higher education is a great strength nationally. Not all students want, need, or will benefit from the same education, and variation is in general a much stronger position than uniformity. Nevertheless, I would argue that what I have presented here is of relevance to most of our institutions. Even students who are being trained in a very particular area will have to confront, in one way or another, the issue of how what they are doing connects to what others are doing. The full complexity of those relationships and context indicates to me that we all need to figure out, in our own environment, how to have some reflection of the nature of liberal arts education as I have described it in our curricula. Exactly how this is done, and to what extent, is of course dependent on each institution's individual circumstances and ambitions. But for all the reasons I have described, I think it is important to address this component of education.

As my final topic, let me turn as promised, to the term "emergent world." There are two uses of the word "emergent" and both are relevant here. One modern use of the term emergent is to describe properties of systems that are not evident if one looks only at individual components. That such properties might exist is not really new. In statistical mechanics one looks at the behavior of a gas as a whole, for example, and one can ask questions and see properties that are not evident by looking at one molecule at a time. Similarly, the questions we asked earlier about cities, orchestras, and human biology exhibit the same phenomenon. In the same way, we have been discussing properties of the system of the world of work, rather than just looking at one specialization at a time. Understanding the importance of liberal arts education to the world of work demands looking at the system of work, which we don't necessarily see by looking at one specialization. Thus we have already been talking about the world of work and emergent properties.

But there is another sense of emergent of course, and this refers to what is coming into being. And here one of the most powerful impacts that we are seeing now, and which will continue in the future, is the industrialization of Asia, particularly but not exclusively China, and the relationship of that industrialization to increased globalization and flow of goods, services, investments, skills, technology, and information. For many reasons that echo the discussion we have had of the liberal arts—whether the arguments of understanding the world for a fuller life, citizenship, or the issue we have focused on here today, namely the role of the liberal arts in the world of work—giving students a serious cultural, historical, political, or economic exposure to other parts of the world, with Asia as an example but not the only example, will be a major benefit to students across a wide array of areas in which they might be involved in their professional life.

It is for these reasons and more that the University of Chicago has increasingly viewed a global presence and opportunities across the globe as crucial to a great deal of our education, particularly our liberal arts education for undergraduates. The University has sizable centers in London, Paris, Singapore, and Beijing, and we are working on one in Delhi. These are not just local offices for managing student abroad programs, but robust centers for research and education. The most recently completed one, in Beijing, is 23,000 square feet and is host to a revolving set of faculty and student programs, workshops, seminars, and research projects, most done in collaboration with Chinese colleagues from a variety of Chinese universities, institutes, and other organizations.

In addition, we have a "civilization core" requirement. Every undergraduate student must fulfill a two-quarter sequence that deals with the history, culture, social structure, and politics of a civilization around the world. We believe that studying such civilizations in depth fosters, in addition to increased knowledge about some area of the world, precisely the type of critical thought, focus on context, and challenge to assumptions that I have described in the need for liberal arts education.

The civilization core and the centers abroad program come together in what is called the "civilization abroad" program, where the entire two-quarter program is completed in one intensive quarter, with University faculty accompanying students for a quarter to study civilization on site. Students in these programs also study the relevant local language, thus enhancing their command of another world language. We currently have fourteen such programs around the world, and both students and faculty find them enormously gratifying and productive.

In sum, you see in our approach to globalization, combined with our civilization abroad program, a strong manifestation of the University of Chicago belief in the liberal arts, and the way we believe this needs to be manifest in an emergent world.

This emerging Asian context (and indeed the context of Latin America and Africa as well) will have an important effect upon the world of work in this country and elsewhere. Every indication is that this will mean that the education we offer our students will be only more important going forward than it has in the past in enabling them to flourish in a more complex world. The question of the right educational options to provide them is a crucial one, for individuals, for families, and for our country. I appreciate the opportunity to have shared some thoughts with you today on this essential subject that will require all of our combined attention and efforts in the years to come.

Thank you.