The Colgate Scene
March 2001
Table of contents
Planning Committee Report

Planning Committee Report Contents:
  1. Innovation
  2. Smaller classes
  3. Aid
  4. Environment
  5. Financing the goals of planning
I. Innovation

An important part of Colgate's competitive strategy must be capitalizing on strengths that will help it differentiate itself from other highly selective colleges and universities. One such strength is Colgate's capacity for pedagogical innovation, evidenced in its core curriculum, study groups, interdisciplinary offerings and other programs. Clearly, Colgate is unusually willing and able to fulfill the distinctive promise of the liberal arts college by discovering new ways to structure teaching and learning. By continuing to do so vigorously, Colgate can achieve real distinction at realizing an exceptional ideal.

The overarching goal of the liberal arts college has always been preparing young people to see and express the larger significance of things, and to shape their lives accordingly. Precisely this promise runs through the history of Colgate. Originally it meant imbuing future clergy with a coherent picture of the world. Today we speak in secular terms of teaching young people to judge the larger significance of particular bodies of information, theories, viewpoints and conceptions of the good by seeing them in their relevant contexts and relations. Tradition and common sense tie this first part of the goal to a second, teaching young people to communicate their judgments clearly and confidently, not least because their judgments are best refined in responsive dialogue with teachers and peers; and to a third, teaching them to carry the judgments refined through this process over into their conduct. Plainly these aims say nothing about what makes the ways and means of the liberal arts college distinctive. Nor do they begin to capture the whole mission of the liberal arts college. But they are much of what sets that mission apart.

Looking beyond college to lives and careers in a new century, where technology and global relations will be key factors, these will be skills and habits with enormous relevance. Students who have learned to judge the significance of things by seeing them in their relevant contexts and relations can aspire to more than narrowly defined roles: they will be the managers who can weigh the counsel of conflicting experts and synthesize widely different viewpoints, the journalists who can make sense of diverse eyewitness accounts, the entrepreneurs who can bring specialized technology to bear on social needs, the policy makers who can integrate disciplinary perspectives to reach fresh solutions for social problems. Opposed to every form of provincialism, the robust capacity for contextual judgment will be vital to responsible citizenship in an America that is bound to face special challenges in the international arena. Further, it is this very same capacity that will enable young people to choose intelligently in what is bound to be an increasingly complicated free marketplace of ideas, weighing, comparing and synthesizing before committing to a personal or social ethic.

The Planning Committee believes that Colgate has a significant opportunity to distinguish itself by building on an unusually strong base of existing programs to assure that all students develop this capacity. One challenge, at Colgate as elsewhere, is overcoming students' often-noted tendency to compartmentalize their experience of the curriculum. Too often, students turn the lens of attention from one course to the next without reflecting on important connections. For instance, they may not appreciate the extent to which their courses converge on common questions from different perspectives, inviting them to synthesize or weigh. Many existing features of Colgate's academic program mark us as an institution that recognizes this challenge and strives to integrate student experience: the required core, faculty-led study groups, an impressive array of interdisciplinary concentrations, lecture series and student colloquia. The task ahead is to emphasize, discover or invent the pedagogical structures that will make the development of contextual judgment an element of the education of all students.

Colgate's comparative advantages in promoting these goals are at least three:

  • First and most fundamentally, Colgate faculty think exceptionally hard about teaching and learning. This is plain from their commitment to a core curriculum, the energy they devote to reviewing and renewing the core each year, the creativity that is evident in concentration and interdisciplinary programs, the rich variety of faculty-led study groups, their willingness to work with students on research projects, and from their impressive enthusiasm for educational experimentation generally. The dedication to their scholarship further nurtures their development as teachers who are current in their disciplines and who carry Colgate's reputation into the external world.

  • Second, liberal arts colleges as a group have a distinctive potential to integrate their undergraduates' experience, and thereby nurture the growth of contextual judgment. But liberal arts colleges have been slow to do this in reality, leaving Colgate a significant opportunity. Interest in what has been called "connected learning" is longstanding at Colgate, articulated most recently in the report of the Self-Study for Middle States Reaccreditation. Several of Colgate's signature programs, including its core curriculum and off-campus study groups, recognize the value of connected learning. The task ahead is not so much to discover the opportunity as to seize it.

  • Third, there can be little doubt that the explosion in technological resources for managing information and enabling communication across barriers of time and space is presenting educators with significant opportunities and challenges as they help students to think deeply about complex issues. Colgate has already earned national recognition in the area of educational technology; this institution's concerted exploration of how technological advances might be used to further the objectives of a liberal arts education is an undertaking in which we already have considerable momentum. Further, Colgate's rural location will continue to make technology a natural rather than an artificial focus of faculty and student interest.

Given these advantages, one thing Colgate should do is to seize the opportunity to help students integrate their experience. Indeed, several interesting experiments have already begun: linked first-year seminars, on-campus versions of traditional off-campus study groups, and living-learning arrangements. These and all such experiments should be designed to permit evaluation both at the end and along the way, for the sake of mid-course refinements. The committee does not presume to prejudge any particular experiment in the integration of student experience, and it respects faculty prerogatives regarding what is taught at Colgate and how it is taught. But the committee recommends a systematic, sustained and energetic program of experimentation that will help faculty themselves determine the most effective ways to fulfill this distinctive promise of the liberal arts college.

In the area of technology, Colgate should encourage experimentation by both faculty and students in support of the distinctive mission of the liberal arts college. These applications show potential to develop both communication skills and confidence by engaging larger numbers of students in active discussion, and to broaden -- indeed internationalize -- the context of judgment by providing dialogue with students and others off campus. Colgate should support this experimentation with the new tools of learning by providing state-of-the art infrastructure, high-quality technical support, funding and other incentives as appropriate. While no one should prejudge the outcomes of the asynchronous learning experiment that began in spring of 2000 (which, among other aims, supplements the one-speaker-at-a-time discussion of the traditional classroom with opportunities for every student to be "heard" on a topic and receive feedback), this experiment should be carefully evaluated at an appropriate time. Technological enhancements of international study should continue to be explored as well, including the linking of on-campus and off-campus groups. Dissemination of any proven uses of technology should be pursued as a way to garner notice for Colgate's innovative leadership.

While mentioning here technology and connected learning specifically, the committee recognizes that other lines of experimentation hold promise of serving distinctive liberal arts college goals while building on comparative advantages of the college, including, for example, extended study and the Center for Ethics and World Societies. Hence the committee urges the administration to support all such promising lines of experimentation.


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