Excerpted remarks from President Coleman’s closing speech at the 25th annual TED Conference, February 2009

The truth is: genuine liberal arts education no longer exists in this country. We have professionalized liberal arts to the point where they no longer provide the breadth of application and heightened capacity for civic engagement that is their signature.

Over the past century the expert has dethroned the educated generalist to become the sole model of intellectual accomplishment. While expertise has had its moments, the price of its dominance is enormous. Subject matters of study are broken up into smaller and smaller pieces, with increasing emphasis on the technical and the obscure.

The progression of today’s college student is to jettison every interest except one and within that one to continually narrow the focus—learning more and more about less and less. This, despite the evidence all around us of the interconnectedness of things.

As one moves up the ladder, values other than technical competence are viewed with increasing suspicion. Questions such as: What kind of a world are we making? What kind should we be making? and What kind can we be making? move off the table. Incredibly, neutrality about such concerns is seen as a condition of academic integrity.

In so doing, the guardians of secular democracy in effect cede the connection between education and values to fundamentalists, who you can be sure have no compunctions about using education to further their values—the absolutes of a theocracy. Meanwhile the values and voices of democracy—the very opposite of such certainties—are silent.

This aversion to social values may seem at odds with the explosion of community-service programs. But despite the attention paid to service, these efforts remain emphatically extracurricularandhavehadvirtuallyno impact on the curriculum itself. In effect, civic-mindedness is seen as residing outside the realm of what purports to be serious thinking and adult purposes.

This brew—oversimplification of civic engagement, idealization of the expert, fragmentation of knowledge, emphasis on technical mastery, neutrality as a condition of academic integrity—is toxic when it comes to pursuing the vital connections between the public good and education, between intellectual integrity and human freedom, which were the heart of the challenge posed to and by my European colleagues just as they are the soul of a liberal education.

While the astronomical distance between the realities of the academy and the visionary intensity of this challenge was more than enough to give one pause before plunging in, what was happening outside of higher education made backing off unthinkable.

The corrupting of our political life had become a living nightmare. Nothing was exempt: the separation of powers, civil liberties, the rule of law, the relationship of church and state, accompanied by a squandering of the nation’s material wealth that defied credulity.

When the design emerged it was surprisingly simple and straightforward. The idea is to make the political/social challenges themselves—from health and education to the uses of force—the organizers of the curriculum. 

A harrowing predilection for the uses of force had become commonplace with an equal distaste for alternative forms of influence. At the same time all of our fire power was impotent when it came to halting, or even stemming, the slaughter in Rwanda, Darfur, Myanmar.

Our public education—once a model to the world—has become most noteworthy for its failures. Despite having a research establishment that is the envy of the world, more than half of the American public don’t believe in evolution (and don’t press your luck about how much those who do believe in it actually understand it).

Incredibly, this nation, with all its material, intellectual, spiritual resources, seems utterly helpless to reverse the free fall in any of these areas. It only accelerates.

Equally startling from my point of view was the fact that no one draws any connections between what is happening to the body politic and what is happening inside our leading educational institutions. We may be at the top of the list in the public’s mind when it comes to influencing access to personal wealth; we aren’t even on the list when it comes to responsibility for the health of this democracy.

We are playing with fire. You can be sure Jefferson knew what he was talking about when he said, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” On a more personal note, this betrayal of our principles, our decency, our hope made it impossible for me to avoid the question: What will I be able to say years from now when asked, where were you?

As president of a leading liberal arts college famous for its innovative history, there were no excuses. So the conversation began at Bennington, knowing that if we were serious about regaining the integrity of liberal education, basic assumptions needed to be radically rethought, starting with our priorities.

When the design emerged it was surprisingly simple and straight forward. The idea is to make the political/social challenges themselves— from health and education to the uses of force—the organizers of the curriculum. They would assume the commanding role of traditional disciplines with structures that connect rather than divide; expand horizons rather than limit them. Mutually dependent circles instead of isolating triangles.

And the point is not to treat these as topics of study but as frameworks of action—the challenge: to figure out what it will take to actually do something that makes a significant and sustainable difference. Throughout a central objective is to make thought and action reciprocal—thought driven by action; action informed by thought.

In this dramatically expanded ideal of a liberal arts education, knowledge honed outside the academy becomes essential to what is happening inside the classroom. Social activists, business leaders, journalists, politicians, professionals will join the regular faculty as active and ongoing participants in this wedding of liberal education to the advancement of the public good. Students in turn continuously move outside the classroom to engage the world directly.

The most important discovery we made in our focus on public action was to appreciate that the hard choices are not between good and evil but between competing goods. This discovery is transforming; it undercuts self-righteousness, radically alters the tone and character of controversy, and enriches dramatically the possibilities for finding common ground. Ideology, zealotry, unsubstantiated opinion simply won’t do. This is a political education for sure, but it is a politics of principle not of partisanship.

People will continue and should continue to learn everything there is to know about something or other; we actually do it all the time. And there will be and should be those who spend a lifetime pursuing a very highly defined area of inquiry, but this single-mindedness will not yield the flexibilities of mind, the human resourcefulness and ingenuity, the multiplicities of perspectives, the capacities for collaboration and innovation this country needs.

This is a political education for sure, but it is a politics of principle not of partisanship. 

If the question of where to start feels overwhelming, you are at the beginning not the end of this adventure. Being overwhelmed is the first step if you are serious about trying to get at things that really matter on a scale that makes a difference.