Liberal Arts College Presidents Sit Sown to Debate the Future A College-Guide Editor Pushes His Vision of an 'Interactive Multimedia Core Curriculum' and 'Distance Learning'

By David Holmstrom, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, October 24, 1995 | Go to article overview

Liberal Arts College Presidents Sit Sown to Debate the Future A College-Guide Editor Pushes His Vision of an 'Interactive Multimedia Core Curriculum' and 'Distance Learning'


David Holmstrom, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Mel Elfin is as mad as a gargoyle at 33 presidents of liberal arts colleges.

"Get real," he tells them at a college-leadership symposium held here last week under the splendid Gothic dome of Union College. Mr. Elfin is executive editor of "America's Best Colleges," a popular guidebook published by U.S. News & World Report.

Some of the best liberal arts colleges in the United States, as the polished gems of higher education - expensive, but considered a lifetime investment - have seen their luster dulled by a host of converging factors. Profound cultural and technological shifts, fierce marketplace competition, cost restraints, and widening demographic changes are shaking the colleges.

As a result, small liberal arts colleges are in crisis, Elfin says. Some have disappeared or shifted from a mission purely of education to one of training professionals. One school, Bennington College in Bennington, Vt., upended its academic department and its tenure structure, completely remaking itself. Others are scrambling to retain their distinction from large universities.

This challenges what Shirley Peterson, the president of Hood College in Frederick, Md., says is the purpose of a liberal arts education: "the creation of a strong, subtle, supple, resourceful, and capacious human mind."

Elfin doesn't necessarily disagree. But he promotes a computerized future for liberal arts colleges, which he says are "slipping into unaffordability." The average yearly cost of a liberal arts education is about $21,000.

"I don't think classrooms are necessary anymore," Elfin says bluntly, calling for the colleges to step up and ensure something of a future by collectively creating "an interactive multimedia core curriculum." This curriculum, shared among colleges, would define a new-old liberal arts education for students in a society rapidly turning to computers to deliver information and experiences, he says.

Elfin says the concept of "distance learning," using TV monitors in a classroom to offer courses from distant locations, is already yesterday's technology. Even now, students at some colleges, using laptop computers, have access to vast on-line, global resources with faculty members becoming individual tutors.

At other colleges, entire courses are computerized. Even the concept of "going away" to college might be replaced in the future to offer a less expensive path to a degree, Elfin suggests.

When asked what the core curriculum should be, Elfin admonishes the presidents: "You tell us. The liberal arts colleges should tell us," he says.

But where Elfin sees the computer shaping a promising new future, many of the presidents at the symposium see his vision as almost an anathema to the ethos of the liberal arts experience.

"I think this is a vision of a future with autodidacts as opposed to a future of students," says Richard Warch, president of Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisc. "Part of what a liberal arts college does is train students in the kinds of social skills and negotiations that become totally absent in the kind of world {Elfin} described," he says. "We would just be sitting in front of our Powerbooks."

At larger universities research is king, but the hallmarks of a liberal arts education are professors who enjoy teaching and small classes. …

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