November 5, 2010

Hathaway Brown Innovation Summit: Liz Coleman

Dr. Elizabeth Coleman has been the president of Bennington College since 1987. She is their ninth president. She has lead the institution in re-visioning its definition, practice and purpose of a 21st century liberal arts education. Prior to assuming the presidency at Bennington, Coleman was the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and a professor of humanities at the New School for Social Research in New York and a professor of literature at SUNY-Stony Brook. She speaks nationally and internationally, including delivering the concluding presentation at the 25th anniversary TED Conference (see below).

"Now is an indispensable moment for educators and we best not waste it." This is the heart of Dr. Coleman’s argument. Other highlights, really admonishments born of experience, are these:

- "no need to test the water if you are considering innovation." Here’s the deal:  the water is hot. People always resist change. The work is hard, the road is tough.

- nothing sort of the future of our democracy and the state of the world is at stake and dependent on our ability to transform education.

- our job as educators and the purpose of education is "to make possible the transformations that will make the world in which we live a better place than it would otherwise be without our education."

Dr. Coleman suggests that we as educators have lost our powerful connection to this world-changing and responsibility-for-the-world source of legitimacy and essential power. She says, “Education is the great hope for ourselves and our future in the world. Our neglect of education is especially perilous in a democracy.”

Children, young ones in elementary schools as well as older ones in colleges and universities must learn social equity, social justice, societal responsibility. Dr. Coleman says, “We want to educate students to be thinkers and responsible global contributors, not just to develop economically capable students” with the skills to have globally competitive jobs. “To focus just on the “vocationalization” of education in that sense falls short of our goals.”

Professionalization is important but not the only thing. The best use of liberal arts is to develop thinkers who have the capacity and the ability to create solutions to the world’s problems. "The best use of education is to develop thinkers who have both the intellect and the ethics to make our societies live into their fullest possibility. Students, our future leaders, need the intellectual perspective and preparation for civic engagement.  They need expertise, judgment, breadth, curiosity, and motivation. They need a sense of citizenship and responsibility to humankind."

Dr. Coleman is concerned that “as purpose of education diminishes, so does our potential as a society...A society full of experts, politicians, zealots and spectators does not make a rich democracy.” Our students need the empowerment and sense of responsibility to change the world. Sadly, in too many places, however, what Dr. Coleman sees, or our own making, is “complacency and oblivion to the turmoil of the world around us.”

The world and the classroom are too separate. Dr. Coleman has led Bennington College into creating vibrant and meaningful connections that reinforce that the world and the classroom are two sides of the same coin. The students experience in the world informs the classroom and the classroom provides a framework and exploration place to understand the world. Dr. Coleman's work and vision are fascinating. Her courage is visible as well as her prowess as a thinker and a leader.  That the participants at Hathaway Brown Innovation Summit were honored, truly, to have an opportunity to glean her wisdom.

Liz Coleman at TED

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