Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts

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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The core of education

Career ConversationsI was already a fan. A Mac computer sits on my desk in Park Hall; at home, an iPod contains a good portion of my music collection; and an iPhone travels with me wherever I go. Like millions of others, I have found my life changed by Steve Jobs’s vision, and I read the stories about his life and accomplishments with admiration, respect and a sense of satisfaction.

Although a college dropout, Jobs consistently expressed a deep appreciation of the liberal arts. He famously credited his study of calligraphy at Reed College as later influencing the development of the first Apple computer. He described the company he founded as a liberal arts organization as well as a technology firm. “I think our major contribution [to computing] was in bringing a liberal arts point of view to the use of computers,” he once told an interviewer. One commentator dubbed Jobs an exemplar for liberal education.

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For(e) sight

Faculty members may still be unpacking, but the Mars Center for Science and Technology is officially open. It is a glorious building in so many ways, from the “green” technology hidden in its infrastructure to the gleaming façade it presents to the campus. Since the new building opened in late July, I have walked through the facility at least a half-dozen times for no reason other than to appreciate the space. It is truly a marvel.

While the quality of the Mars Center is no surprise, the reality has me just a little awe-struck. This building represents many things, not the least of which is the incredible generosity of Wheaton’s alumnae/i, trustees, parents and friends. The college was able to take on this project in the midst of one of the nation’s deepest and most sustained recessions only because of loyal supporters who contributed $35 million to this effort. That would be exceptional at any time; in this economy, it is heroic.

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The road ahead

Farmers marketIf you ask students about their favorite new “thing” at Wheaton this year, chances are you will hear about the farmers’ market. On Fridays at noon this fall and spring, local organic farmers and artisans set up their wares on tables in the Dimple (or in the atrium at Balfour-Hood) and attracted brisk business from students, faculty, staff and a few neighbors who were in the know.

It’s not hard to understand the attraction. The farmers’ market featured lots of good things: fresh fruits and vegetables, artisan breads, locally made cheeses, smoked fish, organic honey and much more. Student groups contributed to the bounty, too, making and selling panini with organic ingredients and traditional Vietnamese spring rolls; they also sold the fresh salad greens harvested from the student-run greenhouse next to the Presidents’ House.

The most remarkable thing about it, from my perspective, is that the market owes its existence to student initiative. It was created through the leadership of the student-run group, AfterTaste, with help from the provost’s office administrative assistant, Bernice Morrissey, and Jennis Heal, executive chef with Wheaton’s food service provider, Aramark. It exemplifies what can be accomplished when the college empowers students to be leaders and entrepreneurs, and it provides the space to experiment with new ideas. It’s also a good example of one way to create opportunities for learning. [Read more...]