Columbia College Dean Dr. Michele Moody-Adams discusses liberal arts education.
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GUEST: Michele Moody-Adams
AIR DATE: 06/18/2011
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.
And surely the most relevant of the many personal notes I have injected into these opening program notes since I began my television conversation series 55 years ago this spring is the fact that 65 years ago this spring I was fortunate enough to have been graduated from what I still consider the best of America’s liberal arts colleges … Columbia College, here in New York.
And now, as my fellow Class of ’46 survivors gather to toast Alma Mater, I have the honor of welcoming to the Open Mind Dr. Michele Moody-Adams, the newest Dean of Columbia College. At Columbia, my guest is also Vice President for Undergraduate Education as well as the Henry L. and Lucy G. Moses Professor, and the Joseph Straus Professor of Political Philosophy and Legal Theory.
Well, I’d like to begin today by telling the Dean just how blessed I feel to have gone to Columbia College, to have been exposed there to the finest liberal arts education imaginable, to have studied closely with such great teacher/scholars as Ernest Nagel, Lionel Trilling, Charles Frankel, Dwight Miner, Irwin Edman, Jacques Barzun, Moses Hadas, Theodosius Dobzhansky, Mark Van Doren and so many others, including, of course, two of her illustrious predecessors as Dean, Harry Carman and Larry Chamberlain.
But that praise for our great liberal arts college takes me right to a comment Dean Moody-Adams made not all that long ago:
“Some contemporary critics”, she wrote, “will wonder whether any liberal arts education…can ever be anything more than a ‘remnant of economic privilege’.
“Moreover”, my guest noted, “in a time of extraordinary economic upheaval and crisis it is not unreasonable to ask the larger question of whether there is an appropriate fit between the ideals of a liberal education and the broader demands of a sometimes brutal market economy.” Now, those are tough questions to begin with I know, Dean, but I’ll put them to you.
MOODY-ADAMS: Well, they’re crucial questions for this moment in history, as they have been at no other time. And in answer to that second question about whether the liberal arts education really is appropriate for this moment …this very brutal moment economically … my answer is “yes”.
I resist the thought, which gives rise to the first question that an education has to be pre-professional in some deliberate way or vocational in some deliberate way in order to prepare students for a challenging and complex economy.
In addition to the fact that we are, indeed, preserving the best intellectual tradition in an institution like Columbia College, we’re also giving students a set of skills and intellectual cognitive capacities that will suit them … whatever … suit them well … whatever line of work or profession they choose.
And some of the value of the education won’t unfold right away. But I think every student who leaves Columbia College and you’re a perfect testament to this … will tell you that the value of what we offer grows over time.
HEFFNER: Well, I can testify to this … and I’m not tooting my own horn now, but over the years of The Open Mind and its 55 years … so many people have said “you do this topic now and the next topic the next week, and still a very different topic. How do you prepare for all of that?”
And my answer always is, “I went to Columbia College”. Now that’s arrogance, perhaps, but it brings back … brings me back to the question of your other quote.
Is it a … is it something left only for the chosen and the lucky and the fortunate?
MOODY-ADAMS: Well you certain are lucky and fortunate if you are able to get a Columbia College education. But it’s not for the elite alone that it’s a valuable enterprise for us to preserve and, and welcome students to.
It creates a kind of cultural capital for students, particularly who may not have had certain kinds of cultural experiences growing up.
It really does eliminate certain kinds of barriers and differences and, and class separation. And exposes students to ideas that enable them to rise above or beyond the origins that they may have come from in their, in their families or their communities.
And I really think of it as something … in the classic sense of a liberal education that liberates the student from their origins and enables them to have a kind of freedom intellectually … a kind of an intellectual nimbleness I think that’s mirrored in the … your capacity to jump from topic to topic, week to week. And, as I said, it really sort of eliminates differences in a way that I think no other kind of education does.
We are sometimes suspicious because we think of what is being offered is somehow effete or precious. But, in fact, the … things particularly in the core curriculum that our student study expose them to the deepest questions of human existence. They teach them about the complexity of human experience.
They teach them how to dig into a text that’s challenging and difficult and come up from inside the text and make something reasoned and thoughtful out of it for themselves and for that particular historical moment.
So no, I will not agree to the claim that it’s somehow only for the elite. Or that it’s effete or it’s precious.
In fact it’s the deepest questions that human beings can ponder and think about that we, that we introduce students to.
HEFFNER: Well, let’s turn the question around then and look at it the other way. It’s not only for the elite …
HEFFNER: But does it, does it not … and I really want to put it that way …
HEFFNER: … create an elite.
MOODY-ADAMS: So that is a very challenging question. I have to acknowledge that it does and yet if we create the elite Columbia student in the right way, they are productive citizens, they care about public life. They care, we hope, about doing something that involves potentially public service and certainly some way in their professional lives to give back.
We educate them to be responsible citizens. And in so doing, even if the education produces appreciation of a part of culture that is in some way elite, they’re not cut off from the culture.
We encourage them to go back and share. Much as Plato talks about the philosopher in the cave going back and sharing the education we give them.
So it’s an interesting question. But I, I can tell you in 2011 we can have students who come from very modest backgrounds who may have had no experience of art … great art … or some great Western art music, for instance, who will tell you that they come to identify with it and they come to see how it might, in fact, represent some important aspect of the human experience.
Not confined only to those who are elite. And if they can spread that message about the richness of the traditions that we preserve through the Columbia education, I think they’re able to transcend the eliteness, if you will, of the, the kind of education they get.
HEFFNER: Well, let’s, let’s, let’s see how well they have … we have spread the message …
HEFFNER: What is the lot of liberal arts education in America today?
MOODY-ADAMS: That’s a very, very challenging question. Selective liberal arts colleges which for decades in the first part of the 20th century had been the place where the liberal education was best preserved … with the exception of a few places like Columbia College … are in big trouble.
The, the free standing small, selective liberal arts college is in great distress.
Some of them in distress have gone out of existence. Others are not going out of existence, but little by little they are introducing more of a kind of pre-professional element into the education they offer.
And, again, I have nothing against people studying things that can, in principle, prepare them for a profession.
But when you think about the shifting character of the markets that people go out into to get jobs and professions these days.
If you prepare students for one career … if you send them out able to, to be accomplished in one area only, I think you’re doing them a disservice.
So, it’s troubling to me that the selective liberal arts colleges are, in some way, relinquishing their mission.
That means that the places like Columbia College that are parts of large research intensive universities have taken on … or … they, in fact, have been given the responsibility to do more to preserve liberal arts education than they might have been expected to have in the earlier parts of the … part of the 20th century.
Columbia already had committed itself to the, the liberal arts. But it’s even more important than ever now that an institution like Columbia University … widely known and, you know, properly praised for its graduate and professional programs that we also continue to the best of our ability to preserve the best of the liberal arts experience.
And we’re also fortunate at Columbia because we are able … we have access to more resources so we’re able to continue to make access to a liberal arts education really realize-able and plausible. We’re able to give very generous financial aid packages to those families who need it.
And so we’re able in some important way to do what people denied was possible, which is to have a great university in which we also put undergraduate education seriously.
I lament the demise of the liberal arts colleges. I, I am a product of a great liberal arts college … one that happens luckily to be in very good shape …
MOODY-ADAMS: … and I think will survive. But many are not so fortunate. And I … it, it is a shift and a change in the landscape of American higher education and I hope that we can find a way to being them, in some sense, back from the brink.
I think it’s important to have options for students, not every student will flourish at a large institution like Columbia University.
And so, even as we acknowledge their, the decline, I am hoping as a culture … we can find a way to preserve them. At least to preserve the ones that are, that are still in existence and still continuing to pursue the, the liberal arts mission.
HEFFNER: How well can the great universities, that are the state universities …
HEFFNER: … and that obligations that Columbia doesn’t have …
HEFFNER: … how well can they and do they handle this question of a liberal arts education?
MOODY-ADAMS: The story is mixed. They are under great pressure, largely for reasons of economic upheaval and uncertainty and budgets in state … in states that we know of as formerly flush … budgets now being in trouble.
People are making choices and they’re making choices … I think sometimes it’s in a short-sighed way for what they believe to have the most obvious, immediate economic impact in their states economies.
And, so if you use that standard of decision making about budgets you’re going to look at an English Department of a department of romance languages or classics or, even some basic sciences and say, “What are they going to do for our economy, why should we keep investing in them? We won’t see the results immediately.”
And I … I worry greatly about that. Some of the big state universities that are better funded because they’ve also cultivated their alums over time and so they’ve got endowments … some of them will survive with their liberal arts programs intact.
Some of those same schools are universities where they had actually, frequently created small … sometimes honors colleges internal to the larger university that do as good a job as any place you’ll find … of preserving the best of the liberal arts tradition …
HEFFNER: But I …
MOODY-ADAMS: But they’re under pressure. They’re under pressure.
HEFFNER: I’m, I’m enormously impressed at Rutgers where, where …
HEFFNER: … I teach …that the honors program is so wonderful …
HEFFNER: … my students do very well …
HEFFNER: … and there is no sense, therefore, on my part that here it’s only a matter of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer …
HEFFNER: … intellectually …
HEFFNER: … in terms of, of knowledge. But as one looks at American education generally …
HEFFNER: … don’t you have to have that feeling?
MOODY-ADAMS: You have to worry in part because most people who are educated in the institutions of, of higher learning in America are educated by state systems.
Maybe they’re partly community colleges, but mostly large state schools, universities with multiple functions and missions and if those institutions are in trouble, if they have their budgets cut … if states come to feel that education … particularly higher education is no longer a public good … as a nation I think we are flirting with danger.
The, the future health of our polity, I think, depends upon educating students to the best of our ability. And again I have nothing against vocational training.
But we know that it does not prepare students in the same way for the kind of intellectually nimble, cognitively rich engagement with the world that a well-thought out liberal arts program can do.
And it … you know, in the short run you give someone access to a well designed business major, you’re doing a good thing for them. But the business world is in upheaval (laugh) and students careers aren’t paths … will not look the way career paths have looked in the past.
They will have to change jobs over a lifetime many more times than any of us have had to. And there are a set of … there’s a set of skills that I think a liberal arts education provides that no other form of higher education gives them. And I think we’re short sighted if we don’t attend to that fact.
HEFFNER: Wellesley … that’s where you went.
HEFFNER: And I remember the president of Wellesley at this table talking about single sex education …
HEFFNER: … and praising it …
HEFFNER: … and, ah … I wonder how you feel about that. I, I, I couldn’t help but think as I was preparing for our program …
HEFFNER: … I look back to when I started at Columbia …
HEFFNER: Those people must be turning in their graves at the thought of a woman as Dean of Columbia College.
MOODY-ADAMS: That’s funny.
HEFFNER: Now, they’re probably also have been spinning every since Columbia went co-ed …
MOODY-ADAMS: That’s true.
HEFFNER: I can’t really accept that thought.
MOODY-ADAMS: Awww … okay … (laugh).
HEFFNER: I’m not against it … but it’s very difficult for me to think of Columbia in that way.
HEFFNER: What’s your own thought about co-educational education?
MOODY-ADAMS: Well there are many issues bound up in that. I have always maintained that there is a place even in 2011 for schools that provide students who want the experience of a single sex education to give those students the opportunity to choose it.
There are all kinds of reasons. It … there was a time in our history obviously when the exclusion of women from certain kinds of selective universities and colleges meant that, that the best women’s colleges were the only real option.
But, you know, that world has changed. That world has disappeared. I still think there is a place for single sex education. I think culturally we know that there’s certain patterns of development that young people go through … patterns which can be challenged or undermined if in a classroom setting they’re worried about things that maybe have no bearing on the, on the classroom situation.
And some young people, I think, get distracted by, you know, social life particularly the dating part of a life. And when that makes its way into a classroom for some students it’s not a good, a good result.
So even in 2011 when co-education exists in places like Columbia, there is a place … that’s why I defend to the end … the nth degree the right of Barnard to continue along side Columbia College.
But co-education is a wonderful thing. It’s been especially wonderful for Columbia College.
My experience in the last two years as Dean has given me a sense that there was a moment in the history of the college when I think people realized that the, the university needed to kind of reinvigorate the College and needed to think differently about residential life, about the student experience, about preparing students for a world that had both men and women and the open question was, “Were we doing all those things? Were we caring properly about residential life and so forth?”
And introducing them into the College, particularly the way it was done at Columbia has done wonders for the institution. And I think in part because they went 50/50 pretty early on …
MOODY-ADAMS: … as my understanding is they didn’t try to introduce a few women, they said “let’s really turn this into a co-educational place”. And you brought in a kind of energy from young women who were aware the world was changing and opportunities were opening up for them in professions that might not have existed before.
They came ready to, to be involved in student life and athletics … and they gave the men in the College I think a run for their money.
And I’m really … it, it was a better experience for everyone. So, it has been … I would argue … a good thing for Columbia. A reinvigoration of the institution. And we’re about to … in 2012 … we’re about to celebrate the 25th Reunion of the first full four year graduating class at the College.
Some women graduated a little early in ’86, but ’87 was the first full four year class. And they’re doing wonderful things. And they’re brought extraordinary energy also now to the life of alums in the, in the Columbia community. So I hope I can convince you that it’s a good thing.
HEFFNER: Very hard to …
MOODY-ADAMS: Oh, no.
HEFFNER: … I went to DeWitt Clinton which only had men and high school and Columbia College. It’s very hard for old fogies to think …
MOODY-ADAMS: I understand.
HEFFNER: … in those terms.
MOODY-ADAMS: I understand. And you’re … you’re talking to somebody who defends the right to single sex education generally.
I taught … I lived in Indiana for nine years, taught at Indiana University of Bloomington. And one of the sort of jewels in the crown of higher education in Indiana was Wabash College …
MOODY-ADAMS: … which remains single sex and in fact, remains really quite a strong institution and produces young men who go out to do wonderful things.
It’s not the best or the right choice for every young man. But I can understand why it is appropriate for some. So I understand. I hope I can convince you … I’m going, I’m going to work on you.
HEFFNER: Nobody every convinces me … my wife tells me. But let me ask you about something else … switching … we don’t have much time left.
I was intrigued in your … in reading your “Field Work in Familiar Places” …
HEFFNER: … morality, culture and philosophy.
HEFFNER: … you talk about the use and misuse of history.
HEFFNER: What do you mean?
MOODY-ADAMS: I mean a number of things. One thing that I worry about is the ease with which people will claim the best parts of history when it suits them and then be unwilling to say that the full range of actions and choices and institutions that, that are part of that history they claim … somehow don’t have to be claimed along with the good. They want to take just the good and, and exclude the bad.
And I, I worry greatly about the confidence and here I actually am echoing a bit of Aristotle … the confidence that you can say “my character or my choices or the quality of my public life is what it is because of this part of the history”, but if you look at something else that was a part of that same era and you think it should be criticized, “oh don’t worry about it, it’s too far away”.
So I think about a … our … in America the extent to which we rightly claim the heritage of Jeffersonian ideals of equality. But some people who want to say that Jeffersonian ideal is worth preserving which it is … will turn around and in the next breath say, “But you know, if you want to criticize Jefferson for his failure to live up to that ideal in his own practice, you can’t do it. He was a man of his time”.
And it’s that … to my mind is one of the most problematic uses and combined misuses of history imaginable.
And it’s in fact, for me, given rise to another project that’s in a way … follows on the project that the book you’ve quoted from took off … which is a project of cultural relativism.
I, I have now taken up a set of questions about what it means to claim history and what it is for history to make a moral claim on us.
And the argument I try to make is that, as I said, as Aristotle would say, “There has to be a symmetry there. If you get the good, you also get the bad”. And then we have to ask, once we make that acknowledgement … what does it mean for our future and for the, the shape of our institutions and for the … any obligations we may have to respond to, or try to repair some wrong that’s a part of the history we claim.
HEFFNER: But if history can make a claim upon us …
HEFFNER: … we’re in for a hard time because much of our history was so negative in the area of rights …human rights … the question of slavery … which you’re referring to with …
HEFFNER: … with Jefferson.
HEFFNER: How, how does that work out because the argument could be turned around.
MOODY-ADAMS: Well, that’s the challenge of being human. Or at least it’s one challenge.
It’s a good challenge because it’s in a particular historical context that we become the human beings we are. We become moral agents. We come to appreciate literature. And history. And the arts. And we learn language. We’re integrated into a society. And so we don’t want to think that all the things that make us human also present these very serious moral challenges for us.
But, we have to take the challenge on. It’s in the … this is the richness of experience I think that gives rise to great literature. Some of the great texts that you’ve no doubt read, when you were at Columbia College.
It’s that need to struggle with sort of negotiating a path between the best and the worst of humanity that makes us what we are.
HEFFNER: Distinguish between history and heritage and you, you have something noble with the latter it seems to me.
HEFFNER: … and very spotted in its history with the former.
MOODY-ADAMS: Well, your heritage is rooted in history. So it is a reflection of a particular historical era and the things you claim in your identity to bring forward to the future.
HEFFNER: Because I want to separate out …
MOODY-ADAMS: I know you do … but that’s the challenge. And that’s also human. That’s also human because then we have, once we acknowledge that the histories we claim present us with both good and bad and can present us even with obligations to right wrongs that we didn’t ourselves commit. It’s a … it, it feels like a terrible burden, but as I said … for me … it’s one of those burdens … if you will that makes us the rich, creative, innovative beings we are.
To try to deal with that complexity is the sort of thing that gives rise to great literature, great art. I think even great science when you try to understand what it is to be a human being in this complicated world. And to, to situate yourself in histories that don’t always offer you a picture of the world that you wish they would.
HEFFNER: Dean Moody-Adams we have, I think, probably a minute left … and yet I would ask you whether the cops have been on the campus recently?
MOODY-ADAMS: Oh ….
HEFFNER: … in between then … my day … and now …
HEFFNER: … Columbia’s had some problems with protests. How are things going now?
MOODY-ADAMS: Actually even as we continue at Columbia to both have and encourage disagreement … very lively and vibrant … we’ve actually not had, of late … and I say very late … certainly not in my two years …
HEFFNER: Keep your fingers crossed.
MOODY-ADAMS: … any protests that have been excessively disruptive … they’ve been even over debates about potentially quite conflict producing matters like the question of whether to re-introduce ROTC. The disagreements have been civil in a way that I think we couldn’t have said about Columbia in the nineteen sixties and seventies.
And I’m very proud of us. I, I hope it’s a sign of our … all of us …in the Columbia community having matured. And being able to express disagreement without having it degenerate into something destructive.
HEFFNER: Well, you’ll have to promise to come back some time and talk about civil discourse on the campus.
MOODY-ADAMS: I’d be delighted.
HEFFNER: Thank you for joining me today.
MOODY-ADAMS: Thank you so much, it’s been a pleasure.
HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”
And do visit the Open Mind website at www.theopenmind.tv
N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.