Remaking Higher Education for the 21st Century

College for a Day Denver 11 January 2016

1

If Steve Jobs was right when he said “It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing,” why do we see so little innovation in places where liberal arts has the home field advantage? Why do we hear so much bashing of the liberal arts by folks who claim to be future oriented?

2

For the last few years I've been thinking a lot about innovation in higher education. It's actually been an intellectual interest ever since I was a student at an innovative "alternative" college in the 1970s, but the latest "crisis" in higher education and the emergence of a whole field of institutions vying for dominance in the "higher education space" has moved the topic more to the center of my radar screen.

I've been integrating skills drawn from "design thinking" and organizational innovation into my sociology and public policy teaching and frequently turn these tools on higher education itself, specifically my own institution, Mills College. As someone who has spent much of his academic life in the liberal arts milieu I'm one of many who took heart in Steve Jobs' shout out to the liberal arts. As someone who started out with a degree in mathematical, computer, and physical sciences, I've spent much of my career at the intersection he pointed to in that clip. I've often wondered what it would take to take him seriously and really try to effect a such a marriage in an institution of higher education. In this lecture I want to explore one small step in this direction asking "how might we install 'innovation education' into the liberal arts curriculum with an aim to graduating people who will make things that make our hearts sing in the 21st century?"

3

Three things brought me to this topic and this way of thinking about it. A few years back I gave a talk called "Majoring in the 21st Century" in which I argued that what made our liberal arts educations great was that they prepared us to make the 20th century. We read, for example, Carson, Fanon, Friedan and we made a century that saw, for example, real transformation in how we thought about the environment, race, and sex. We have a strong tendency to think "it was good for me, so it should be good for them," but the reason it was good for us is because it was tuned to the world that was THEN the world to come. As parents and educators today our job is to figure out what sort of education will be tuned to the world that is not here yet, a world most of us won't spend a lot of time in just as many of our teachers did not make it to the 21st century with us.

In talk #1 I argued that just because OUR liberal arts education proved useful, we should not think the best education for tomorrow is the one we had yesterday.

I argued for a balance between an approach that is fundamentally conservative in its certainty that the education we GOT is the education we should GIVE - I called this the urge to "tell her what she missed" style of educating - and one that's fundamentally reckless in preparing students only for the next corporate fad.

I took as my model of what we SHOULD be doing the professors who assigned Baldwin, Carson, Fanon, and Friedan to the class of 1963, helping to launch students of that era into a world that would be changed by civil rights, women's, and environmental movements. At its best, our liberal arts education let us major in the 20th century. Our present task, I suggested, is to figure out what it would mean to major IN the 21st century, to study (for) it before it happens. What should we teach the students who are going to run this century?

4

The second thing was a thought exercise I did last year in which I asked "if small liberal arts colleges did not exist, would someone invent them?" My answer was "not as we know them" and then I did a design exercise in which I imagined what we'd need to do differently in order to create SLAC21, the small liberal arts college for the 21st century.

5

The third thing was that I spent last academic year working at an "educational startup" at USC, the University of Southern California, called the Iovine Young Academy for Arts, Technology and the Business of Innovation. What we teach is something that comes under the broad umbrella of "innovation, design thinking, entrepreneurial spirit" and so on. Just as I'm a little cavalier about "liberal arts" I'm going to lump all of these under the heading innovation in this talk. Over the last 9 months I've given workshops on public speaking, lockpicking, team collaboration, programming Arduino micro-controllers, building spatial data into web apps, ethnographic methods, and how to build a computer numerical controlled mill from scratch. I don't have an office. I work in this space called the Garage. I don't even have my course. I'm paid about half of what I make at Mills. But it was the most exciting year of teaching ever for me.

6 And one more thing…

Colleges like the ones all of us went to are somewhat under the gun these days. We cost too much, inequality is increasing, both the left and the right are skeptical about us for different reasons, and tons of folks are gunning for us.

7 The Innovation Bandwagon

Now programs like this are popping up all over the place.

These programs are very very cool. They let students get their hands on things right away. They teach them how to pitch an idea, and start a company. They respond to parents' concerns that education be practical and career oriented. They look enough like industry to get industry to pay attention. And students are attracted by the fact that "cool" and "hip" and "current" are finally the stuff of school rather than a distraction from it.

But even though they bring the experience of creative entrepreneurship into higher education, almost none of these programs are built up from Jobs' idea of a marriage between liberal arts and technology. If anything, most of them pooh pooh traditional ideas about education, especially the liberal arts.

Just a few weeks ago the New York Times featured a piece about how universities around the country are jumping on a "nurture startup founders" bandwagon.1 The schools mentioned - Rice, Harvard, NYU, Boise State, Stanford, MIT, Princeton, Cornell, Penn, Berkeley, Yale, Columbia - are noteworthy as not including any small liberal arts colleges (let alone women's colleges2). In the article the reporter manages to slip in an important observation:

Yet campus entrepreneurship fever is encountering skepticism among some academics, who say that start-up programs can lack rigor and a moral backbone.

Even a few entrepreneurship educators say that some colleges and universities are simply parroting an “innovate and disrupt” Silicon Valley mind-set and promoting narrow skill sets — like how to interview potential customers or pitch to possible investors — without encouraging students to tackle more complex problems.

“A lot of these universities want to get in the game and serve this up because it’s hot,” Mr. Jones said. “The ones that are doing it right are investing in resources that are of high caliber and equipping students to tackle problems of importance.”

Yet the quick start-up workshops offered on some campuses can seem at odds with the traditional premise of liberal arts schools to educate deliberative, critical thinkers.

“Real innovation is rooted in knowledge and durable concern and interest, not just ‘I thought of something that nobody ever thought of before,’” said Jonathan Jacobs, who writes frequently about liberal education and is the chairman of the philosophy department at John Jay College of Criminal Justice of The City University of New York. “That’s not educating people, frankly.”

8 Is Something Missing


Although I've been put off by some of the knee jerk criticism of these programs from my colleagues, these observations resonated with me. My own observations at the Academy last year led me to think that that program - which is a partnership between a business school, an art school, and an engineering school at USC was missing something. There is a tendency sometimes toward all flash and no substance, between excelling at the pitch but having little of consequence to pitch, of allowing a pro-innovation attitude to sound a lot like good old fashioned anti-intellectualism. It occurred to me that something like it could be even more spectacular at a place like my own college where the liberal arts was alive and well.

Could I bring something like this back to Mills?!?!

9 Criticism is Real, Some is Bizarre

It would be a challenge to convince my liberal arts colleagues that this is a sound idea. They are, after all, rightly skeptical of these valorizations of practical skills over abstract knowledge and the disparagement of the liberal arts by politicians and celebrities. Most are not so extreme as Peter Thiel3 who pays promising entrepreneurs not to go to college at all, but in recent months the likes of Richard Branson, Jeb, Bush, and Marco Rubio have worked hard to discredit these ideas for liberals and liberal arts fans.

10 How Might We…

To work through this I started to think about what the learning goals for "innovation education" would be? What skills and mindsets would I be aiming for in this course? How might I explain them to my colleagues.

The value proposition, so to speak, of the course will be the cultivation of a mindset and development a set of skills that help the student solve problems and create value.

If I unpack that a bit, the program I'm imagining teaches you how to see problems and imagine solutions, to rapidly build prototypes of your ideas and use feedback from them to iterate, to thrive in a dialectic of the freedom of "why not" and the constraints of "how will you get people to do that?", to work on teams and engage with colleagues in a manner that multiplies your capacities, to communicate your ideas and results in a manner that generates enthusiasm as well as useful feedback, to assess the practicality of your ideas and to develop a plan for realizing them in a sustainable manner.

11 THE POWER OF OBSERVATION


One of the first lessons of human centered design and innovation is "YOU ARE NOT THE USER." The training of the innovator starts with the power of observation. The student will learn to look at the world around her to see both what is there and what is not there. We might watch how students actually use the library, how a professor prepares a lecture, or how grades are entered into an online system. She learns to observe, measure, ask, and listen. To train an innovator we borrow techniques from art and photography, psychology and anthropology. We'll visit student study spaces, websites, and labs. Her eye gets extended into the other senses: what does it sound like here? what does it smell like?

There is a scene in the movie The Bourne Identity when Matt Damon's amnesiac character tries to understand who he is. "Why do I come in here and immediately know all the sight lines," he asks, "I can tell you the license plate numbers of all six cars outside, I can tell you that our waitress is left handed and the guy at the bar weighs 215 pounds and knows how to handle himself. I know the best place to look for a gun is the cab of the grey truck outside." We won't be training spies but that's the sort of thing we are trying to cultivate in student innovators - whether with the eyes of designers or business people or policy makers or technologists, we want them to be able to constantly see opportunities for improving the world.

Fortunately, this will less shock the liberal arts system than exploit it. Almost every subject you can study in a traditional liberal arts curriculum involves learning new ways to see. In biology, astronomy, and art history it is literal but it is true in every field. We cultivate being observant. We learn about framing and reframing. We see the unspoken assumptions in an argument or theory and we can uncover whole new fields by discarding assumptions. In both art and psychology we learn about figure and ground. In sociology and anthropology we are schooled in the arts of observation. In statistics we learn to see patterns in data.

In cross-cultural and historical studies our eyes are opened to appreciate the taken for granted as taken-for-granted rather than as real, fixed, and given.

On this score at least, I don't have to worry too much about upsetting the liberal arts apple cart.

12 KNOW STUFF


A first lesson of the innovation "curriculum" is that innovation is not invention, that which is new and original builds on what already exists by new juxtapositions and combinations. New devices, practices, and policies do not come out of thin air. The original iPhone, for example, had very little in the way of new technology in it. She is most valuable as an innovator when she brings to the table a knowledge of everything that's already been done (and/or a hunger to find out about it). We will need students to be intellectually omnivorous and insatiable. Some may think it's all about creating an app but they'll quickly learn it's about encyclopedic research.

This should work well in the liberal arts college environment. In some sense we have always attempted to cultivate in the liberal arts student the arrogant presumptuousness that most everything is worth knowing and that the question "why do I need to know this?" is almost never a good one. The liberal arts graduate is valued for her breadth of knowledge. She has studied some history and literature even if she is a biologist. She learned about immigration and demography although her degree is in poetry. The math major minored in classics. The history major who applies to law school took several courses in computer science and ethnomusicology. Their broad stock of knowledge allows them to connect intellectually with a wide range of people and to be a creative problem solvers because problems do not respect disciplinary boundaries.

If we can recruit students like this, we're in business.

13 BOUNDARIES BE DAMNED

Walls only get in the way in innovation education. The designer needs to know the chemistry of her materials. The innovator needs enough about coding to work with her coders. The entrepreneur enough accounting to talk with her investors.

There is not field or discipline called innovation. The skills and knowledge they need will be found in history, education, psychology, sociology, computer science, and business courses. The innovator learns that the walls between disciplines are for peering over and breaking through.

This imperative dovetails nicely with perhaps the most proverbial feature of traditional liberal arts education: breadth. We consider breadth of knowledge so fundamental that it is sometimes mandatory - our general education and distribution requirements make the students break through the walls and study on the other side. Innovation education does not challenge this, it simply provides a concrete rationale. (1)

14 COLLABORATE


An important lesson in the innovation curriculum is to disabuse students of the idea that creativity is a muse-inspired solo act of the lone genius. Inventions rarely come out of a single brain. Innovation never does.

When we teach innovation we spend a lot of time teaching people how to work in teams, well aware that there is nothing natural about it. One must learn to be a team contributor and one must learn how to use the contributions of team members. One learns new ways to talk and new ways to listen. A well functioning team is not a division of labor, but a multiplication of labor. We come to trust one another with our ideas because we know that we all understand the care and feeding of our respective creativity. We build on other people's ideas and we thrill when they build on ours. When a team works well, no one is quite sure where the brilliance came from.

This practice finds a cousin in a hallmark of liberal arts education: the seminar - a group of students sitting around a table intensely focused on a text or artifact or problem. It is easy to define this as students sitting with a professor, but the great seminar is one in which classmates hear each other out, pushing the logic of insights, suggesting alternative takes, and helping one another go far beyond where they could go by themselves. The professor has a big role; she structures the interaction, guides the common focus, models the inquisitive thinker, but the magic emerges when the students' minds gear into one another.
In some sense, a team is a seminar on steroids. Everyone talks about collaborative learning these days but actually doing it is a real challenge. The self conscious attention to team work in innovation education will add value to the liberal arts seminar tradition helping us to train students to take that skill out into their lives where teams are ubiquitous and there is no longer a professor at the end of the table.

15 FAIL


A notable practice in contemporary innovation work is captured in two phrases: "rapid prototyping" and "fail early." Both of these are premised on the idea that the world has things to tell you about your ideas. The sooner you can put those ideas in tangible form and watch people touch them, try them out, figure them out, or be baffled by them, the more quickly you can make the next version based on feedback. The philosophy behind prototyping is that although the brain is a powerful organ it a waste to simulate the world when we have the world right here. We constantly push students to put ideas into tangible form.

The iteration of prototypes makes it not "OK to fail," but rather makes it "normal to fail." Work is structured in a manner that permits frequent trials and errors. In teaching innovation we cultivate the mindset that tries and re-tries as quickly and inexpensively as possible and we teach the skills of how to employ prototyping tools that allow us to externalize an idea quickly in a manner that lets us share it, play with it, generate feedback, see the back side of it. We learn to keep track of our versions, learning from each mistake and learning from our learning.

This practice bears a lot of resemblance to the essay that lies at the center of the liberal arts teaching. The word essay is related to the French word ESSAYER, to try, but it is easy to lose sight of this and think of it as a thing, a piece of writing, rather than the act of working out an idea in writing.

We expect students to work things out by trying and by sharing the fruits of their labors with teachers and peers who are expected to constructively criticize. Essay writing is just idea prototyping. And in the best experiences, final products result from a long series of drafts (recall that Ernest Hemingway famously said "the first draft of anything is shit."4. Anyone who writes for their job knows that nothing improves a piece of writing like putting it onto paper and then reading it out loud and then rewriting it and then rewriting it.

My step-son's best experience in high school came when, after spending over a month working up a paper on Thomas More's Utopia he finally determined it was good enough to show to his teacher. After their conference he came home persuaded he needed to tear it up and start over. He was enthralled by the experience and did perhaps the best work of his high school career.
The rapid prototyping and iteration of innovation practice are really just essays and drafts, but on steroids! What's useful to the liberal arts is the explicitness and self consciousness with which these are a part of innovation practice.

16 MAKE A DENT


An old aphorism about innovation is this: If you build a better mousetrap the world will beat a path to your door. Aside from the fact this this is often not true - it takes a massive PR campaign for people to find out about your mousetrap no matter how good it is - it raises the question as to which part of it is the motivation. What we are trying to develop when we teach innovation, I suggest, a big element of the innovator's mindset, is the urge to improve the mousetrap, not the hope that the world will come to your door. Sometimes you can't see that because every young person gets excited by the idea of being the next Mark Zuckerberg, but that's not really where it's at. The world is not fixed as it is, it is there to be fixed.

The driving force in the course I'm hoping to teach will be a passion for making the liberal arts college of the 21st century everything it can be and then some. We want people to have both the attitudes and the skills to be the "change agents" the world needs.

There are clear echoes of this in the contemporary rhetoric around liberal arts and especially liberal education more generally which are full of references to civic responsibility. And in our own liberal arts college context we talk a lot about social justice. Both point in the same direction - education should help you cultivate the urge to make a difference as well as give you the skills to do so.
For many of us, the liberal arts are romantic at their core. There must be something to education beyond the promise of a bigger pay check?

As Steve Jobs said, the point is to make a dent. Why else be here.

17 EXCELLENCE


In the world of innovation and design it sometimes seems that they festishize the beautiful and the clever. Walk around Apple or Google or visit a designer's apartment or read through the pages of Wired magazine. But there's reason to this rhyme. Just look at that iPhone in your purse or that Apple watch on your wrist or those coffee table books on your coffee table. When we say "surround yourself with…" smart people, the best people, beautiful objects, good design it is because the innovator takes her taste seriously. As a part of the course we will immerse ourselves in the best examples of educational innovation: Plato's Academy, the 19th century German university, the tutorial system at Oxford and Cambridge, the origins of Kindergarten, Black Mountain College, the experimental colleges of the 1960s, the very best examples of online learning, the most successful experiments in teaching. This cycles back around to "learning to see" but this time the focus is to always see what COULD BE.

The epitome of a liberal arts education is probably "the great books" curriculum. Almost no one who studies the philosophy of Kant, the plays of Shakespeare, or the art of the renaissance ever expects to apply what she learns to later life. You do not read Moby Dick in case you find yourself in a contest with a whale; you read Moby Dick because you are a human being living in human society. To grapple with the mind of Herman Melville through the novel or to ponder with Rilke an archaic torso of Apollo or a panther pacing behind bars is to have an encounter with human excellence. It raises the bar on your everyday thoughts, it changes who you are, it shows you something of human possibility.

Both liberal arts and design have sometimes been criticized as being elitist. But in some perverse sense, we are willing to own this, we in this room actually think the world is a better place when more people have read Dostoevsky, when "ordinary" people know some chemistry. Innovation education inculcates an appreciation for the well designed elevator button panel or bus schedule or family leave policy on the belief that such appreciation will cause it to spread. Our mission can be to graduate students who not only been to the proverbial mountaintop to see what is possible, but have also absorbed enough of that image to expect of the institutions they work in nothing less than excellence and then to get to work making that happen.

11 OBSERVE


The training of the innovator starts with the power of observation. The student will learn to look at the world around her to see both what is there and what is not there. We might watch how students actually use the library, how a professor prepares a lecture, or how grades are entered into an online system. She learns to observe, measure, ask, and listen. To train an innovator we borrow techniques from art and photography, psychology and anthropology. We'll visit student study spaces, websites, and labs. Her eye gets extended into the other senses: what does it sound like here? what does it smell like?

There is a scene in the movie The Bourne Identity when Matt Damon's amnesiac character tries to understand who he is. "Why do I come in here and immediately know all the sight lines," he asks, "I can tell you the license plate numbers of all six cars outside, I can tell you that our waitress is left handed and the guy at the bar weighs 215 pounds and knows how to handle himself. I know the best place to look for a gun is the cab of the grey truck outside." We won't be training spies but that's the sort of thing we are trying to cultivate in student innovators - whether with the eyes of designers or business people or policy makers or technologists, we want them to be able to constantly see opportunities for improving the world.

Fortunately, this will less shock the liberal arts system than exploit it. Almost every subject you can study in a traditional liberal arts curriculum involves learning new ways to see. In biology, astronomy, and art history it is literal but it is true in every field. We cultivate being observant. We learn about framing and reframing. We see the unspoken assumptions in an argument or theory and we can uncover whole new fields by discarding assumptions. In both art and psychology we learn about figure and ground. In sociology and anthropology we are schooled in the arts of observation. In statistics we learn to see patterns in data.

In cross-cultural and historical studies our eyes are opened to appreciate the taken for granted as taken-for-granted rather than as real, fixed, and given.

On this score at least, I don't have to worry too much about upsetting the liberal arts apple cart.

12 KNOW STUFF


A first lesson of the innovation "curriculum" is that innovation is not invention, that which is new and original builds on what already exists by new juxtapositions and combinations. New devices, practices, and policies do not come out of thin air. The original iPhone, for example, had very little in the way of new technology in it. She is most valuable as an innovator when she brings to the table a knowledge of everything that's already been done (and/or a hunger to find out about it). We will need students to be intellectually omnivorous and insatiable. Some may think it's all about creating an app but they'll quickly learn it's about encyclopedic research.

This should work well in the liberal arts college environment. In some sense we have always attempted to cultivate in the liberal arts student the arrogant presumptuousness that most everything is worth knowing and that the question "why do I need to know this?" is almost never a good one. The liberal arts graduate is valued for her breadth of knowledge. She has studied some history and literature even if she is a biologist. She learned about immigration and demography although her degree is in poetry. The math major minored in classics. The history major who applies to law school took several courses in computer science and ethnomusicology. Their broad stock of knowledge allows them to connect intellectually with a wide range of people and to be a creative problem solvers because problems do not respect disciplinary boundaries.

If we can recruit students like this, we're in business.

13 BOUNDARIES BE DAMNED

Walls only get in the way in innovation education. The designer needs to know the chemistry of her materials. The innovator needs enough about coding to work with her coders. The entrepreneur enough accounting to talk with her investors.

There is not field or discipline called innovation. The skills and knowledge they need will be found in history, education, psychology, sociology, computer science, and business courses. The innovator learns that the walls between disciplines are for peering over and breaking through.

This imperative dovetails nicely with perhaps the most proverbial feature of traditional liberal arts education: breadth. We consider breadth of knowledge so fundamental that it is sometimes mandatory - our general education and distribution requirements make the students break through the walls and study on the other side. Innovation education does not challenge this, it simply provides a concrete rationale. (1)

14 COLLABORATE


An important lesson in the innovation curriculum is to disabuse students of the idea that creativity is a muse-inspired solo act of the lone genius. Inventions rarely come out of a single brain. Innovation never does.

When we teach innovation we spend a lot of time teaching people how to work in teams, well aware that there is nothing natural about it. One must learn to be a team contributor and one must learn how to use the contributions of team members. One learns new ways to talk and new ways to listen. A well functioning team is not a division of labor, but a multiplication of labor. We come to trust one another with our ideas because we know that we all understand the care and feeding of our respective creativity. We build on other people's ideas and we thrill when they build on ours. When a team works well, no one is quite sure where the brilliance came from.

This practice finds a cousin in a hallmark of liberal arts education: the seminar - a group of students sitting around a table intensely focused on a text or artifact or problem. It is easy to define this as students sitting with a professor, but the great seminar is one in which classmates hear each other out, pushing the logic of insights, suggesting alternative takes, and helping one another go far beyond where they could go by themselves. The professor has a big role; she structures the interaction, guides the common focus, models the inquisitive thinker, but the magic emerges when the students' minds gear into one another.
In some sense, a team is a seminar on steroids. Everyone talks about collaborative learning these days but actually doing it is a real challenge. The self conscious attention to team work in innovation education will add value to the liberal arts seminar tradition helping us to train students to take that skill out into their lives where teams are ubiquitous and there is no longer a professor at the end of the table.

15 FAIL


A notable practice in contemporary innovation work is captured in two phrases: "rapid prototyping" and "fail early." Both of these are premised on the idea that the world has things to tell you about your ideas. The sooner you can put those ideas in tangible form and watch people touch them, try them out, figure them out, or be baffled by them, the more quickly you can make the next version based on feedback. The philosophy behind prototyping is that although the brain is a powerful organ it a waste to simulate the world when we have the world right here. We constantly push students to put ideas into tangible form.

The iteration of prototypes makes it not "OK to fail," but rather makes it "normal to fail." Work is structured in a manner that permits frequent trials and errors. In teaching innovation we cultivate the mindset that tries and re-tries as quickly and inexpensively as possible and we teach the skills of how to employ prototyping tools that allow us to externalize an idea quickly in a manner that lets us share it, play with it, generate feedback, see the back side of it. We learn to keep track of our versions, learning from each mistake and learning from our learning.

This practice bears a lot of resemblance to the essay that lies at the center of the liberal arts teaching. The word essay is related to the French word ESSAYER, to try, but it is easy to lose sight of this and think of it as a thing, a piece of writing, rather than the act of working out an idea in writing.

We expect students to work things out by trying and by sharing the fruits of their labors with teachers and peers who are expected to constructively criticize. Essay writing is just idea prototyping. And in the best experiences, final products result from a long series of drafts (recall that Ernest Hemingway famously said "the first draft of anything is shit."5. Anyone who writes for their job knows that nothing improves a piece of writing like putting it onto paper and then reading it out loud and then rewriting it and then rewriting it.

My step-son's best experience in high school came when, after spending over a month working up a paper on Thomas More's Utopia he finally determined it was good enough to show to his teacher. After their conference he came home persuaded he needed to tear it up and start over. He was enthralled by the experience and did perhaps the best work of his high school career.
The rapid prototyping and iteration of innovation practice are really just essays and drafts, but on steroids! What's useful to the liberal arts is the explicitness and self consciousness with which these are a part of innovation practice.

16 MAKE A DENT


An old aphorism about innovation is this: If you build a better mousetrap the world will beat a path to your door. Aside from the fact this this is often not true - it takes a massive PR campaign for people to find out about your mousetrap no matter how good it is - it raises the question as to which part of it is the motivation. What we are trying to develop when we teach innovation, I suggest, a big element of the innovator's mindset, is the urge to improve the mousetrap, not the hope that the world will come to your door. Sometimes you can't see that because every young person gets excited by the idea of being the next Mark Zuckerberg, but that's not really where it's at. The world is not fixed as it is, it is there to be fixed.

The driving force in the course I'm hoping to teach will be a passion for making the liberal arts college of the 21st century everything it can be and then some. We want people to have both the attitudes and the skills to be the "change agents" the world needs.

There are clear echoes of this in the contemporary rhetoric around liberal arts and especially liberal education more generally which are full of references to civic responsibility. And in our own liberal arts college context we talk a lot about social justice. Both point in the same direction - education should help you cultivate the urge to make a difference as well as give you the skills to do so.
For many of us, the liberal arts are romantic at their core. There must be something to education beyond the promise of a bigger pay check?

As Steve Jobs said, the point is to make a dent. Why else be here.

17 EXCELLENCE


In the world of innovation and design it sometimes seems that they festishize the beautiful and the clever. Walk around Apple or Google or visit a designer's apartment or read through the pages of Wired magazine. But there's reason to this rhyme. Just look at that iPhone in your purse or that Apple watch on your wrist or those coffee table books on your coffee table. When we say "surround yourself with…" smart people, the best people, beautiful objects, good design it is because the innovator takes her taste seriously. As a part of the course we will immerse ourselves in the best examples of educational innovation: Plato's Academy, the 19th century German university, the tutorial system at Oxford and Cambridge, the origins of Kindergarten, Black Mountain College, the experimental colleges of the 1960s, the very best examples of online learning, the most successful experiments in teaching. This cycles back around to "learning to see" but this time the focus is to always see what COULD BE.

The epitome of a liberal arts education is probably "the great books" curriculum. Almost no one who studies the philosophy of Kant, the plays of Shakespeare, or the art of the renaissance ever expects to apply what she learns to later life. You do not read Moby Dick in case you find yourself in a contest with a whale; you read Moby Dick because you are a human being living in human society. To grapple with the mind of Herman Melville through the novel or to ponder with Rilke an archaic torso of Apollo or a panther pacing behind bars is to have an encounter with human excellence. It raises the bar on your everyday thoughts, it changes who you are, it shows you something of human possibility.

Both liberal arts and design have sometimes been criticized as being elitist. But in some perverse sense, we are willing to own this, we in this room actually think the world is a better place when more people have read Dostoevsky, when "ordinary" people know some chemistry. Innovation education inculcates an appreciation for the well designed elevator button panel or bus schedule or family leave policy on the belief that such appreciation will cause it to spread. Our mission can be to graduate students who not only been to the proverbial mountaintop to see what is possible, but have also absorbed enough of that image to expect of the institutions they work in nothing less than excellence and then to get to work making that happen.

18 WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?

Talk about "liberal arts for the 21st century" is cheap. A first step is to recognize that yesterday is not a paradigm for tomorrow - that our liberal arts education was excellent to the degree that it prepared US for the next 50 years; now we have to invent the liberal arts education that will prepare today's student for their next 50 years. Second, we need to get off the soapbox of defending the liberal arts in terms of old values and vague formulations like "critical thinking." Instead, we can zero in on exactly how the skills and knowledge "traditional" liberal arts yields are in fact exactly what the doctor ordered. Third we can borrow from other realms to take what we can do and transform it.

What if the alumnae rose up and took me down?! But what better than teaching the HOW of some of the stuff I'd been preaching about for the last two years? Why not learn about how one might "apply" some of the ideas around design thinking, innovation, startup culture and so on to higher education, and especially liberal arts colleges. And so I proposed an experimental course on innovation in/of higher education. But as I worked on it, I realized that the ideas themselves were worth importing into the Mills curriculum - that, actually, they were already there.

And that's where "(Disruptive) Innovation as a Liberal Art" came from. The goals for the program are two fold. First I want to introduce our students to what I think are a set of really valuable new ideas and skills (or at least a really valuable framing of same). Second, I want to both motivate and equip our students and myself and my colleagues to actually invent this liberal arts for the 21st century that we have been talking about for the last decade or so.

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How has Jobs' insight turned into an us vs. them battle with innovation and entrepreneurship on one side and liberal arts on the other?

What I want to do today is to flesh out Steve Jobs' claim and describe a curriculum that I would call "innovation education" that gets at what kind of marriage of technology and the liberal arts he had in mind.

Why so much sniping by the humanists whenever the idea of innovation and entrepreneurship are raised?

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Are those of us who treasure the liberal arts maybe too focused on preserving a legacy? Are today's liberal arts colleges perhaps too recognizable to those of us who graduated 10, 20, or 50 years ago? A decade and a half into the 21st century, are we sometimes too true to our 19th century origins? Is it perhaps too easy to think about the future of liberal arts in terms of "if it was good enough for me, it's good enough for them!"?

That sort of planning for tomorrow on the basis of yesterday really doesn't cut it in the 21st century. Allowing oneself to be seduced by the "protect the legacy" approach is fundamentally irresponsible. In just two years we will enroll our first students who were born in this century - true citizens of the 21st century. Our most important job is to figure out how to educate them for life in the rest of that 21st century just as our 20th century liberal education turned out to be right for that century.

Just look at what happened during their childhood. How am I supposed to know what and how to teach them so that when they are sitting where you are in, say, 2045, they'll be thinking "it sure is a good thing I went to Mills College back in the twenty teens." This is actually something that keeps me up at night. It's a genuinely hard problem.

But just because it's a hard problem doesn't mean we don't have to try to solve it.

Now an increasingly common approach is one to "disrupt" higher education in an iconoclastic manner. At the extreme one has Peter Thiel offering brilliant young people a stake if they will simply forego college and get started on starting a business right away. Less radical are the innovation and entrepreneurship programs that are popping up.

A recent New York times described this bandwagon and all the universities that are scurrying to get on board.

I actually worked for one of these last year. I was on the team that helped to create the Iovine Young Academy for Arts, Technology and Business of Innovation at the University of Southern California.

In our program last year we had guest speakers who do 3D printing, who are using wireless technology to monitor health, outfitting police with cameras and other technology, inventing the music streaming services of tomorrow, or making movies like Gravity. The students learned to use laser cutters, wood working tools, and 3D drawing. They worked in teams to conjure up novel solutions to innovation challenges and learned in their first semester in college to do amazing presentations. But even though they had general education requirements like other USC students, there were a number of us who were nervous about a missing something.

“People without a liberal-arts background really have no place to go with their skill sets,” said Frank Guido, a Culinary Institute student from Rochester, New York, sitting in the campus café and studying the Mayan Indians for a course he’s taking in history and culture. “They lack an overall knowledge, and an ability to relate to people and make educated decisions, and not jump to conclusions.”6

I actually agree with some of these guys. I've already said we have to stop looking backward and making legacy keeping our guiding value. I've already said that I don't think anyone would invent small liberal arts colleges if they did not exist. Now what I want to do is to describe the kind of academic program we should be developing - what I'm calling innovation as a liberal art.

What will our learning goals be?

Observation.
Depth.
Walls.
Collaboration.
Failure.
Make a dent.
Beauty.

These questions are especially germane today because contemporary higher education faces many serious challenges and because there is an army of entrepreneurs out there who want "disrupt" it by developing the "killer app" that will do to college what Apple did to the record industry and Amazon did to bookstores.

In the last few years there's been a lot of talk about innovation in education and especially, education in innovation. Just a week or so ago the NYT featured some of these in a front page article. The angle of the article was that these programs are about creating the entrepreneur of tomorrow and that today's students are impatient and want to get right at the business of invention.

It's become fashionable for people in the liberal arts to snap back at this enthusiasm

But we in the liberal arts need to stop defining ourselves in terms of what we are against.

Downton Abbey - get to practicals.

In today's talk I want to introduce you to preview a course, "Disruptive Innovation as a Liberal Art," I am preparing for teaching at Mills. The course will be a "hands on" introduction to design thinking in the context of higher education. I'll describe my plans for the course and, hopefully, elicit ideas from you by posing this question: if the small liberal arts college did not exist, how could it be the disruptive innovation we are looking for?

Greetings. Greetings from the golden state of California and all your sisters and brothers in Oakland.

I recently gave a talk to admitted students and their families in Pasadena, California. I explained that there are two very special moments for me as a teacher and then I described what it's like at graduation when I meet the parents and we look at one another and share a knowing smile because we both know what transformation the years at Mills have accomplished. And then, after a bit of advice about choosing colleges and such I ask "don't you want to know what the other moment is?" And then I say that it's the moment in August when I get to welcome them to Mills. Well, I have to admit to a third moment in a professor's life that's equally special and that's occasions like this when I get to meet you and get a sense of where those graduates go after they leave because really that's what it's all about.

Third Talk in a Trilogy.This is actually the third talk on the future of liberal arts that I've given to Mills audiences over the past two years.

Before we go any further I should confess that I am being a little sloppy about terms - many folks would carefully distinguish "THE liberal arts" from "liberal education" from "liberal arts education" from "liberal arts colleges." Especially with this audience I feel like I can get away with a vague formulation along the lines of "you know, the kind of thing we do at Mills."


I am motivated by a few things. One is I think it's a pretty good idea, this liberal arts college thing. It's not the only way to get an education, but it's basically sound and it's something I feel good about devoting my life to. But another reason is that we, higher education in general and small liberal arts colleges in particular, are in a bit of a tough spot these days.


Challenges. We face at least four distinct challenges.

The first and perhaps biggest challenge we face is that we cost too much. It's not just about feeling uncomfortable about that fact, it's basic economics: there just are not enough families out there who can afford even our discounted tuition. Not just Mills - a whole big slice of the small college scene. This challenge is compounded by the fact that more people than ever need and expect a college education and the expansion of that population is demographically in the direction of families who cannot afford the price.

And then there is politics: We don't mean to be elite but in effect we are. And that draws fire from both the left and the right. One of the most common things I hear from Mills students is "I could not ever have imagined I would get to go to Mills." That's a delight to hear, but it tells us a lot about the world we are in. Delightfully surprising more and more students each year like that is not a sustainable business model.

Another thing is the fact that there is an armada of entrepreneurs out there eager to tap into the flow of resources from families and students into the higher education market. They are smart, motivated, and very well financed and they want to do to higher education what Apple did to records and Amazon did to bookstores.

And finally, there are folks within higher education, in think tanks and big foundations who have ideas about where higher education should go that are not completely resonant with how we think about education in the liberal arts college context.

This brings to mind something attributed to Erasmus:

A fronte praecipitium a tergo lupi. It translates as "a precipice in front, wolves behind." There ARE days when that's what it feels like, but in my cheerier moments I prefer Benjamin Franklin:

In that spirit of optimism, I've spent the last few years thinking a lot about where small liberal arts colleges might be headed. Should be headed. Could be headed.


In talk #2 I paraphrased Voltaire's question about God asking "if small liberal arts colleges (SLACs) did not already exist, would anyone invent them?" My answer was "probably not" but this got me thinking about how we can iterate on the received model to create what I call "SLAC21." Could we formulate an exciting enough model that we could imagine a kickstarter campaign for the next new thing in higher education - could the new small liberal arts college be one of the disruptions higher education is looking for?

That was last October. A lot has happened in six months in higher education that can impact what SLACs are doing.

  • Obama pushes free community college
  • Starbucks and ASU,
  • Wisconsin implodes
  • Minerva, a global liberal arts college for 10+10 is launched
  • MOOCs have come and gone and come and gone and come again
  • ASU just last week announced an online First Year Program for under $6k
  • The Chronicle of Higher Education just told us the other day that Entrepreneurship is the new bandwagon

Higher Ed these days is a fast moving target. What should I talk about in DC in April?



An event in my own life is relevant at this point.

For the past year I've been on leave working at an "educational startup" at USC, the University of Southern California, called the Iovine Young Academy for Arts, Technology and the Business of Innovation. What we teach is something that comes under the broad umbrella of "innovation, design thinking, entrepreneurial spirit" and so on. Just as I'm a little cavalier about "liberal arts" I'm going to lump all of these under the heading innovation in this talk. Over the last 9 months I've given workshops on public speaking, lockpicking, team collaboration, programming Arduino micro-controllers, building spatial data into web apps, ethnographic methods, and how to build a computer numerical controlled mill from scratch. I don't have an office. I work in this space called the Garage. I don't even have my course. I'm paid about half of what I make at Mills. But it was the most exciting year of teaching ever for me.


What Will We Learn?

—The value proposition, so to speak, of the course will be the cultivation of a mindset and development a set of skills that help the student solve problems and create value.

If I unpack that a bit, the program I'm imagining teaches you how to see problems and imagine solutions, to rapidly build prototypes of your ideas and use feedback from them to iterate, to thrive in a dialectic of the freedom of "why not" and the constraints of "how will you get people to do that?", to work on teams and engage with colleagues in a manner that multiplies your capacities, to communicate your ideas and results in a manner that generates enthusiasm as well as useful feedback, to assess the practicality of your ideas and to develop a plan for realizing them in a sustainable manner.—

The course will blend hands on exercises, field work, and "book learning." It will introduce practices taken from art, design, and engineering education into the more traditional liberal arts areas. It will move back and forth between the methods of social science, natural science and humanities. As I now envision it, it will push students to develop in seven directions.



Reading List

SCOTT SAMUELSON APR 29, 2014 [http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/04/plato-to-plumbers/361373/ Why I Teach Plato to Plumbers
Liberal arts and the humanities aren't just for the elite.] The Atlantic

Marcus, Jon. "The Unexpected Schools Championing the Liberal Arts" The Atlantic OCT 15, 2015

Groth Aimee, "Entrepreneurs don’t have a special gene for risk—they come from families with money" Quartz July 17, 2015

Entrepreneurship: The Ultimate White Privilege? JORDAN WEISSMANN AUG 16, 2013

Blog post January 2, 2016 Keywords for the Age of Austerity 24: Sullen Cheer Up, Dammit! by JP Leary

Jill Lepore, “The Disruption Machine,” The New Yorker JUNE 23, 2014 ISSUE

Contest video http://youtu.be/KTpm1HQTv1I
Course video https://youtu.be/dsHEdma9m84