Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts

Work it

One Saturday this fall, students filled every seat in the Filene Center. What drew them away from homework and free time? The opportunity to chat with alumnae and alumni about how to navigate the path from college to careers in finance, health care, education, computer programming, publishing and more.

Career conversations such as the one held during the Alumnae/i Leadership Conference have become a regular feature of campus events. In many ways, these mentoring discussions between students and graduates are not so different from the lecture series that Catherine Filene Shouse ’18 convened at Wheaton in 1917. Her Intercollegiate Vocational Conference for Women represented a first for the college and for the entire United States. The purpose was to make jobs more accessible to women, and the conference she established continued at Wheaton into the 1950s.

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Revolution and evolution

One sentence from an article published by the New York Times last spring has stayed with me.

“Last fall, 160,000 students in 190 countries enrolled in an Artificial Intelligence course taught by [Sebastian] Thrun and Peter Norvig, a Google colleague.”

While the enrollment for the Stanford course struck me as incredible at the time, I’ve read about a number of other MOOCs (or massive open online courses, as they are called) in recent days and learned about other class enrollment lists that ran to six digits. [Read more...]

The network effect

In April, I spoke at a conference at Lafayette College titled “The Future of the Liberal Arts College in America and Its Leadership Role in Education Around the World.” More than 200 administrators, including 50 college presidents, turned up for the gathering.

The inspiration for the conference can be summed up in one word: anxiety. These are difficult days for liberal arts colleges. As a group we face significant challenges in demonstrating the value of the education we offer to an increasingly skeptical public, addressing the rising cost of attendance at our institutions and incorporating technology in ways that improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our programs.

The conversation was interesting on many levels. However, I was puzzled by one notable omission: any sustained discussion of the role of alumnae and alumni in helping liberal arts colleges to innovate while remaining true to our core principles. That idea did not receive much attention during the conference. And yet it seems so obvious: no one understands the value of the liberal arts better than those individuals whose lives have been changed by the rigorous and broad-based study that is the hallmark of this approach. The graduates of liberal arts institutions are persuasive ambassadors and wise advisors.

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One education, many purposes

“What is the purpose of a college education: is it about developing occupational skills or acquiring knowledge?”

My questioner was a journalist who has covered higher education in the United States for more than two decades. And no, I don’t think he genuinely believed the answer had to be one or the other. Rather, his question reflected the false choice that is so prevalent in public discourse about undergraduate education.

President Barack Obama, among others, champions the idea that every U.S. citizen needs a post-secondary education to prosper and to help keep America strong. In this view, colleges and universities must organize the curriculum around marketable job skills sought by employers. In the current economic climate, in which joblessness continues at painfully high rates, this idea has an obvious attraction.

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