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the opportunity for liberal arts education
on March 10, 2011
Anybody who cares about how we might engage a world of increasing complexity, uncertainty, and possibility needs to read this book. Educators especially need to pay attention.
We want to instill a passion for learning, but we typically address our desire by first thinking about designs - of syllabi, curricula, distribution requirements and more. Thomas and Brown invite us to change our starting point by asking how people learn today in a world with unprecedented access to information.
The authors invite us to recall that disturbing memory - even when America was poised to invade Iraq, most US citizens could not find Iraq on the map. But some, Thomas and Brown suggest, would simply draw on their internet facility to find the answer. While we should expect more of a citizenry in what they know, we should also think anew about how people learn.
Yes, people learn in classrooms, but the authors encourage us to think about how people develop their knowledge beyond the classroom. Colleges are great not just for what the professors offer, but what the students do with their assignments off hours. To be immersed in a world of learning, as Thomas and Brown say, is the real inspiration I recall from my college days at Davidson, and what I now see among my students at Brown. But thirty years make a difference.
My college learning depended on terrific anchors - an honor code that assured integrity, a set of distribution requirements that inspired breadth, and a college culture that could move my passion from golf to sociology. Today's culture of learning, the authors propose, flows more, relying less on preexisting stocks of knowledge or fixed cultures of intellectual authority and more on a passion for learning that itself is a form of play.
My students and I discussed this book in our class on knowledge networks and global transformations yesterday. These digital natives debated it - how American are the assumptions? How much can we trust that this new culture of learning moves toward truthfulness rather than truthiness? Are there ways to move digitally produced collectives toward more ethical behavior, and away from destructive practice? It was a great discussion, evidenced by how it continued well beyond the classroom.
As I listened, I wondered whether in fact I was observing just what Thomas and Brown were describing - this different culture of learning in action, and whether, in that assembly, I was seeing in formation that next incarnation of the thing which made Brown University famous more than three decades ago: its new curriculum.
Universities and colleges are embracing, at different paces, the revolutions in information and communication technology, from digitalizing libraries to blended online and onsite learning. But after this volume and its classroom discussion, I would like to understand better the effect and potential of this new culture of learning in higher education. And it begins with these questions:
Do Thomas and Brown capture this new culture well? It strikes most of my students to be on target, but it does call out for more research.
How does this new culture of learning combine with traditions in liberal arts? There are complements to be sure, but there are some real tensions that need to be faced.
Even as the information revolution promises to globalize knowledge, it proceeds with the accents of its vanguard. Are there ways that the global conversation might find and elevate the diversity that the authors themselves acknowledge to be the fount of creativity?
"Where imaginations play, learning happens". That's the message, that's the invitation, and that's the hope. And next time we figure out how to assess our institutions of higher education, let's identify the spaces for imagination in our local worlds of learning.