Tenets of the Liberal Arts: Complex Thinking in the Digital Age (Educause)

by Charles J. Henry and Elliott Shore

Published on Monday, November 10, 2014

[full article here.]

Charles J. Henry is President of the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR). Elliott Shore, Executive Director of the Association of Research Libraries (ARL), is the 2014 E-Content department editor for EDUCAUSE Review. Both are members of the Committee on Coherence at Scale for Higher Education.

In January 1993, the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) released Mosaic, the web browser that led to the Internet boom of the 1990s. Within a couple of months, one of this article’s co-authors, Elliott Shore, started to teach a series of continuing-education workshops at the Rutgers School of Information and Library Science to help introduce web-searching to librarians. There was something eerie about those sessions: the librarians—and the faculty at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, where workshops were also conducted—seemed to forget everything they had once known about information. These were people who had been trained in searching techniques, who understood the way research was conducted, and who could decipher what worked and what didn’t, what was relevant and what wasn’t, what was of good and what was of dubious quality. As they looked at the screens that Mosiac offered up, the fascination with this revolutionary browsing capacity seemed to wipe away their critical sense.

Twenty-one years later, the current debate about technology upending the liberal arts tradition1 entails a kind of collective amnesia similar to that evident at the dawn of the digital revolution. We seem to have forgotten what we already knew: that we need to bring all of our critical capacities to the promise of linked information technologies and we need to bring the liberal arts methods and rigor to the digital environment.

One reason for the ongoing debate that pits digital technology as somehow counter to the liberal arts tradition is the concomitant persistence in defining “the college” by virtue of its component, physical parts: boxes of sorts that more naturally lend a helping conceptual hand to deconstructing the (usually “leafy,” “manicured,” and “isolated”) campus and reassembling it virtually. Another aspect of the debate is the insistence that the form is the content, that the method of delivery is the chief mode in which an idea can be understood. The promise of the digital is not in its contradistinction to and distancing from the non-digital but, rather, in its extending and complicating the non-digital. This is also something we already know but seem to be forgetting as we enjoy or vilify what is on the screen.

One of the more prominent and passionate discussions involves MOOCs, online courses that can enroll more than 100,000 students at a time. Isn’t this an improvement on the traditional model, and won’t it disrupt that model to, perhaps, a breaking point? The honest answer is “possibly,” but the assumptions driving MOOCs are conservatively rooted in older precepts of space and time. The “classroom” is just that: a room, a bounded space. A MOOC allows for much less bounded parameters between student and teacher and between student and student. In the liberal arts, whether practiced in a small college or a large university, the classroom—which can be a combination of desks and chairs and also online discussion groups and spaces to interact outside the bricks-and-mortar institution—is a framing notion. The transcendent aspects of a course well taught lie in the interplay of minds within this space.

About Ryan C. Fowler

Ryan is a curricular fellow at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington D.C. He also teaches at Franklin and Marshall College and Lancaster Theological Seminary.
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