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A case for liberal education – CV talks with Carol Quillen

by Alex Gregor

A case for liberal education – CV talks with Carol Quillen

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Picture by Bill Giduz

September 15, 2011

In May of this year, Davidson College elected its 18th and current president, Carol Quillen.  The trustees elected the college’s first female president and the first president since 1957 not to have graduated from Davidson.

President Quillen joins Davidson from Rice University, where she had a distinguished career as a professor of history. She developed global partnerships and new academic programs at Rice as Vice President for International and Interdisciplinary Initiatives. She also developed a profound commitment to liberal education.

After her first introduction she was drawn to the Davidson community, Ms. Quillen said, in part because it was a place where she “could make a contribution to what I think is an incredibly important task - that is to say, re-imagining liberal arts education for a century where the world is much more interconnected and rapidly changing.”

I spoke with her recently about her new job, the importance of liberal education in a changing world, and what a place like Davidson – where students can read Greek or study neuroscience – means for the larger community. Here are some highlights from our conversation.

What makes a liberal arts education relevant today?

Liberal education is about cultivating in students a set of capacities and talents, rather than preparing them for a particular profession or imparting to them a particular body of knowledge or set of discrete skills. I think liberal education develops a person’s capacities like nothing else.

I read Davidson’s statement of purpose as distinctive and really eloquent. To help students cultivate humane instincts, to develop creative and disciplined minds for lives of leadership and service – I don’t think that’s a given at liberal arts colleges, so it’s the combination of those things that makes for a compelling education and a compelling community.

But, liberal education is always going to be expensive. It’s highly selective. It’s labor intensive, and it’s never going to be generally available in any society. It costs too much. So if you’re going to make the case for it, you have to make the case that somehow the existence of those institutions disproportionately benefits the community. I think Davidson is well positioned to make that case, and therefore, Davidson is obligated to make that case.

Can you be more specific? What positions Davidson to make that case?

It’s a part of liberal arts education’s aim to raise the aspirations of our students so that they understand how important it is for them to match their passion with what the world needs from them, and to take that responsibility seriously. The only excuse for highly selective colleges, honestly, is the creation of people who go out and make a disproportionate difference in the world. Otherwise, what’s the value of schools like us?

It’s the combination of attributes that Davidson has working together to create a sense of community that enables students to discover what their ethical commitments are in an environment that doesn’t insist that their ethical commitments be a particular thing. Students realize that they actually want to live up to those commitments, not because they’re afraid of what will happen if they don’t, but because they actually want to be that person. And then, they undertake that self-exploration in an environment that says, “You’re obligated to something larger than yourself.”

Davidson is – not without reason – perceived as elitist and exclusive. What should the college do about that?

Davidson is small and it’s hard. It’s highly selective based on what’s required for students to be successful. I don’t believe that Davidson is elitist in the sense that you have to have a lot of money to go there. But I think it’s easy to confuse small and highly selective in terms of academics, and snobby.

Academic rigor does not mean arrogance. Academic rigor is founded on humility and a deep awareness of how much we don’t know. Our quest for knowledge is based on our sense of the limitations of our own ability to understand and a kind of awareness that no matter how sure we are, we always might be wrong. I think we can acknowledge that we seek really talented students. It would be stupid for us to pretend like we don’t. It is hard to get into Davidson and it’s a place for disciplined, dedicated, talented people. It’s not a place only for affluent people. And it’s certainly not a place for arrogant people, because arrogance gets in the way of the very pursuit of knowledge that we’re trying to exemplify.

Who are leaders you admire and whose philosophies of leadership have shaped your own?

The honest answer to your question is probably my parents. But one person whose presence had a profound effect on me, because of the way he is, is Nelson Mandela. The kind of moral courage that Nelson Mandela personifies, without any bitterness or anger at all, is, to me, astonishing. I think that requires a kind of capacity for looking forward and for forgiving that is unusual. I don’t know where or how he came to be that way, but when I had the opportunity to interact with him [at Rice], that was striking. Just his physical presence in the room was striking, and it had to do with the complete consistency between what he believed and how he acted in the world.

I think the primary attribute of a good leader is having the courage to insist on consistency between what you believe and how you act, even when what you believe is really unpopular, and even when a lot of people think what you believe is going to be unethical.

So what about my job? I think building an environment in which people trust one another sufficiently – that’s really important, especially at a place where all work is collaborative. My job is to facilitate the kind of conversations and inquiries that raise our collective aspirations at Davidson and help us to articulate what we’re trying to accomplish.

What’s the right way for Davidson to engage the community beyond its campus?

There are huge problems in the world today. But at this moment, I think people feel like we can solve a lot of them. It’s sort of like the moment in the industrial revolution when suddenly, people thought, wow, maybe scarcity – really awful, horrible scarcity – isn’t just a fact of life. Maybe it’s possible to produce enough so that a significant number of people in the world aren’t starving. I think that’s how we feel right now. There are big, huge, intractable problems that we might be able to address. We need to find a way to give students a range of opportunities that allow them to see that they can make that difference.

These opportunities have to take place in the community. It’s mentorships and internships and ways for students to do useful research in partnership with community organizations. It’s building a series of programs that give students opportunities to solve problems. In solving problems using talents that they’ve developed through their education, students will learn to raise their aspirations and solve bigger problems. It’s only when you see that you can do that that you really begin to recognize talents you don’t know you possess.

For example, with Charlotte, education is a huge issue. Mayor Foxx is very interested in education. He thinks it’s the key to economic development. We have a bunch of students who are very interested in education, particularly for underserved kids. That’s a natural partnership.

A lot of what Davidson does is very traditionalist. But the world is changing quickly. What’s your sense of how Davidson needs to change to adapt to the 21st century?

My suspicion is that Davidson has changed more than we think over the past few decades. As an example of that, there was a time when environmental studies, neuroscience, and synthetic biology were not taught at Davidson because they didn’t exist as fields. In that sense, the Davidson curriculum has changed in the light of changes in the world. Along with that, the kinds of opportunities that we want to offer students have changed.

Now we have a higher emphasis on research, because we have people like Malcolm Campbell and Laurie Heyer and Julio Ramirez who are doing – and who want students to do – top-level research. We have the Dean Rusk International Studies Program, which is getting students to go abroad and helping to design meaningful opportunities for them to learn to be global citizens, which didn’t matter nearly as much 30 years ago. I do believe Davidson has changed more than we think it has, and I do believe it’s going to continue to change, even if we dig in our heels and say, “No, it’s never going to change.”

Why did you become an educator?

Because I love to learn. Because I can remember being in college and sitting in Western Civ. and reading The Peloponnesian War for the first time and being both shocked and moved and changed by what I was reading, and by the example of the person who was teaching me. I do believe that that is why people go into teaching. I don’t believe that people go into it to stand up in front of a group of kids and say stuff that they already know, because that is boring.

The kind of environment where what you’re really teaching is a love of learning that requires a willingness to risk challenges to things that you’ve always believed - that is the liberal arts. That’s why people want to teach at a liberal arts college – to help people learn to love learning, so that they can live in the world in that way and make a difference because of that.

What do you read for fun?

I read everything from detective novels and crime fiction, which are escapist for me, to new fiction. I like Michael Chabon a lot. A friend of mine, who’s a screenwriter, and I have this ongoing conversation about [Jonathan] Franzen and Chabon. Franzen ... [is] very smart, and he’s a great writer, but it’s like he’s telling the story of his characters in the harsh neon light of a subway, or the Central Park bathroom. Nobody looks good. Whereas, Chabon tells his stories in candlelight. Everybody looks good. They can be exactly the same people, or very similar, and there’s this kind of generosity of spirit in Chabon’s writing. But what gives Franzen’s characters their appeal is their sense of irony. They at least know how ridiculous they look.

Ha Jin is another favorite. I think it’s very interesting now to think about authors who are writing in English but whose formative languages are not English. It’s global fiction. There’s a multiplicity of perspectives in that kind of writing that’s interesting.

What’s up next on your to-do list as the academic year moves along?

My strategy so far is to listen to people. I have a lot to learn. I have made no decisions about anything and won’t for a while because I don’t know enough. A lot of what I’m trying to do is listen to people’s stories about Davidson so that I can begin to articulate a set of questions to pose to the community with the aim of developing shared vision.

I’d like to demonstrate that while I’m listening and learning, I can get things done. But you don’t want to do the wrong things or make big decisions before you know what you’re doing. There are some things we can do fast – little things, not huge things. The students want donuts in the academic building in the morning? I think we can handle that.

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Tags: Carol Quillen, interview, davidson college, liberal arts, education

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