The Genius of this Place
Consult the genius of the place in all.
-Alexander Pope, Epistle to Burlington (1731)1
Good evening to you all, dear colleagues and friends of Concordia. Anne and I rejoice to begin this new year with you, and we are delighted to welcome this evening the chair of our Board of Regents, Judge John Tunheim. Judge Tunheim, will you please stand so that we can thank you for your service?
Last August, I opened my talk by recalling the arrival of Concordia’s first leader to hold the title president, Rasmus Bogstad, and by remembering his role in choosing the name Concordia, intended to invoke harmony and unity of purpose: hearts together. Tonight, I want to begin with a wider lens, though still a historical one, to set the scene before returning to our own college in its present strengths and aspirations.
The trustees, historian Frederick Rudolph writes, “were in panic.”
They added an entirely new course of study to the curriculum . . . , which might be taken in whole or in part rewarded by a certificate but not a degree. They drew up a program of tuition scholarships for the citizens of the city. . . . They offered to relieve the United States Navy of the necessity of creating a naval academy. . . . For $1,000 any ordinary citizen could by a perpetual scholarship [to the college] . . . . For every $20,000 given . . ., in cash or real estate . . ., the city government could appoint a trustee . . . . And [a few years later] . . . the trustees further revised the curriculum to help along the ambitions of would-be architects, engineers, and factory superintendents.2
This confusion about mission, kitchen sink-curriculum, desperate fundraising, and remarkable “pandering” took place in 1830—at Columbia College in New York, now Columbia University3. Twenty years before, the trustees had scrapped a highly “innovative course of study” for a more traditional four-year curriculum, confident that this was what the new American nation needed. Now they were in trouble.4
What happened? The story is long, but what matters to us is that Columbia’s struggles typified much of higher education from the end of the Revolutionary War until WWI. Higher learning in America had begun with our colonial colleges: founded in imitation of an Oxbridge education to shape men to lead the divine and lay professions; focused in curriculum on ancient languages, rhetoric, and moral philosophy; and undergirded by the conviction that the human psyche consists of distinct “faculties,” each of which can be developed by well-chosen studies to produce the desired result.5
But the advent of the new American nation—in its explosion of ambition across the continent; its embrace of technologies to subdue time, distance, and wilderness; and its increasingly industrial economy—presented a powerful challenge to the classical curriculum. Colleges entered a long stretch of disorientation and experimentation, sometimes bold, sometimes fatal. By the end of the Civil War, we had reached what 21st-century pundits would call an inflection or tipping point. The old curriculum, still strong at some schools, was mixed with all manner of other offerings—not all of them as embarrassing as Columbia’s in the 1830s, but far from coherent. What happened next has defined higher education ever since.
In brief, inspired both by the needs of the emerging American nation, by the specialization that defined the German research universities, and by the support of industrial magnates like Carnegie and Cornell, leading institutions from 1865 forward adopted (a) the elective system of courses, (b) a greatly expanded curriculum, and finally, (c) the student credit hour, whose origin was a 1910 study commissioned by the Carnegie Foundation called “Academic and Industrial Efficiency.”6 The elective system—as distinct from the older, common curriculum—offered students a chance to study what they chose. In such a system, declared President Charles Eliot at Harvard in 1869, the student “knows his way to happy, enthusiastic work, and, God willing, to usefulness and success.”7 The expanded curriculum allowed the universities to keep classical studies but to embrace science more fully, to include the modern languages, and to extend the universities’ range to more technical fields. This expansion was linked with a democratic sentiment that affirmed “the equality of all branches of knowledge” needed to thrive in America.8 Andrew White, president of the new land grant university Cornell, announced, “I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study,”9 and in a direct rebuttal of the old pedagogy of training the mind’s distinct “faculties” after a known formula, he told students in his first inaugural address, “you are not here to be made; you are here to make yourselves.”10 And the credit hour, sponsored by Andrew Carnegie’s educational foundation, offered a means to weigh, measure, rationalize, and record student learning in the wide, elective curriculum.
Everyone in this room is heir to this transformation of college. Though from the 1940s forward there have been notable initiatives emphasizing the value of common and coherent learning for undergraduates in their lives as citizens and professionals,11 we live and work inside the elective system, the expanded curriculum, and the currency of the credit hour. The question I want to set before us is this: Are we now at another inflection point? Are we now at a moment when the old order—old in part because it has worked so well—can no longer hold? And if we are, what ought we to do, and by what principles?
When I read about higher education in popular press, I sometimes feel as if I am in an endless loop of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”:
There must be some way out of here,
Said the joker to the thief.
There's too much confusion;
I can't get no relief.
Each month brings us a new round of books about college whose titles sound like newly discovered punishments in Dante’s Inferno: it can be difficult to think in the din of agonized and angry pronouncements—our business model is broken, the liberal arts have little value, and online learning has already eaten our breakfast and will soon swallow lunch and dinner as well. But there are real questions, questions real for the nation and real for us at Concordia:
- The question of demographics: The supply of 18-year olds is going down in the upper Midwest, and when it rises again, it will be markedly more diverse than at any time in the history of our college.
- The question of cost: Despite the fact that what the average family actually pays for a private higher education has gone down over the last five years,12 we operate within a system of sticker prices, discounts, and multiple sources of aid that makes paying for college confusing at best, prohibitive at worst.
- The question of technology: We may brush off the efforts of most online schools on the grounds that they lack our reputation and track record of achievement, but very soon we will see not only non-credit but also credit bearing courses offered by our most elite universities to any student enrolled at any college.
- The question of worth: We find ourselves rehearsing the life-long value of the liberal arts that cultivate clear thinking, effective communication, and a sympathetic understanding of the larger world even as it seems that the sole measure of achievement is success in the first job out of college. And make no mistake: this may be the one remaining topic that unites government and opinion leaders across the aisle. An examination of President Obama’s “blueprint” for education, called “An Economy Built to Last,” and of Governor Romney’s white paper on the subject, “A Chance for Every Child,” will reveal that each lacks any emphasis on education citizenship or for personal growth: the sole focus is on higher education for economic success.13
What do we do, and where do we begin? I want to start with a line of verse that faculty and staff may have heard during the liberal arts conversations last fall. It is from a 1731 poem by Alexander Pope, a poem about wealth, taste, and (stay with me here) landscape gardening: “Consult the genius of the place in all.”14 What Pope meant by genius was the abiding, indwelling spirit of a place, the deep source of its wisdom and vitality. For landscape gardening this meant attending to the given topography, trees, and other thriving plants—rather than knocking down the hills and displacing the native plants with exotic substitutes. For us, it means consulting our mission, our history, and most of all, the people within whom they live. What do these tell us about how we should stand, and how we should move, at this “inflection point” in our college history? We cannot ignore the questions of demographics, cost, technology, and worth, but neither do we want to be driven before them like leaves in a storm—or, like the trustees of Columbia in 1830—try to offer whatever we think anyone anywhere might buy. If we abandon our faith and learning mission, we have nothing to offer, but fidelity to mission does not of course shield us either from bracing challenges or from the necessity to be imaginative, persistent, and shrewd. Or in sharper words from Matthew’s Gospel: “Be wise as serpents, and innocent as doves.”15
We need to embrace the demographic challenge and the heightened diversity it will bring as an opportunity, laying distinctive claim to the global learning that we prize. The plan for our college will charge us to review and improve the means by which we seek to hire a highly qualified and diverse faculty and staff. It will call on us to increase the presence of domestic students of color to no less than 12% of our student body and international students to no less than 5%. It will call on us to explore an English Language Learning program as a bridge to full college enrollment for those students of great promise but with need for improvement in English communication. More pervasively, it will call on us to fashion a campus experience in which students are daily led into deeper knowledge and understanding of the global interdependence in the arts and sciences, in commerce, in environmental stewardship, and in peacemaking. More radically, it will call for ongoing language and cultural learning to become the norm—for students, for faculty, and for staff. In this endeavor we have a splendid model in the experience for pre- and post-college learners at the Concordia Language Villages.
In meeting the cost challenge there are several ways in which we must go to work. The first is to be forthright in proclaiming our advantage in retention, graduation, and post-commencement placement rates in comparison with the public institutions with whom we compete for students in the Red River Valley and beyond. The differences are stark—our four-year graduation rates are far higher than those of our public competitors16 —and so we need to make sure prospective students know what they mean for college costs. The second is to make our cost formula as brilliantly simple so that students and their families will know early on what a Concordia education will cost them: there is risk here, but also room for creativity in how we determine what families will pay. Finally but not least, we need to lift our endowment to no less than the ELCA median so that we will have the funds to underwrite costs for students who come to us with great gifts but real financial need.
As with diversity, we need to embrace emerging educational technologies not as threats but as means to extend the living voice of faculty-student relationships that has defined great teaching at this college since its founding. Already, some of our faculty are reverse engineering their courses so that students can view and re-view lectures and demonstrations online, opening class time for the relationship learning of mutual questioning, problem solving, and debate. We can imagine using game technologies to draw students into challenging scenarios in which they must apply what they have learned in class, creating two-way classrooms that unite Concordia students with peers around the world, establishing virtual visiting scholars who enhance learning within traditional courses, and envisioning high-level seminars for advanced students in partnership with those at other American colleges. And beyond faculty generated learning, we should be encouraging our students to use new technologies to design and implement solutions for campus, local, and global problems. In truth, most of them are already better at this than most of us: we should set them free to do good work.
Before I move on, I must note a further technological challenge for Concordia College: we are working heroically to do 21st century science in facilities not built for the inquiry-based research and discovery that we rightly value. Renewing our science facilities will be central to the college plan and will be the central capital project in our new campaign.
We come now to the biggest question, the question of worth. It has been my keen intent to learn from staff and faculty as we approach the matters of demographics, cost, and technology. But it is in the matter of worth that I have sought most thoroughly to consult the genius of this place: its mission, history, and people. In them I have seen a longing, vision, and conviction for learning at Concordia, allied to the genius of the place: our abiding mission and the faculty and staff we bring to fulfill it. It is a longing for the examined life, a vision for the cultivation of abilities for lifelong work and service, a conviction that as children of God we are united with neighbors near to hand and across the world. It is the wellspring of a Concordia education of the whole self, for the whole of life, for the sake of the whole world. Hammering out this education is the work of the whole community, but let me offer illustration with some reference to the framework for Concordia that our regents will review this fall.
I am perhaps no longer surprised but still appalled that the current conversation about higher education so often ignores—entirely—the role of college learning in shaping the spirit and character of our graduates. Make no mistake: Our graduates do very well in the race of post-commencement placement rates: Within six months of graduation, 98% of them are in jobs, graduate school, or full-time service like the Peace Corps or Young Adults in Global Mission.17 Yet at this liberal arts college of the church we begin with the affirmation of human worth in the liberating love of God. We begin with the recognition that to learn is a form of human health and joy, good in itself, and productive of good in our service as citizens and people of faith. And so from orientation forward we will call our students into lifelong reflection on their identity, purpose, and responsible engagement in the world. We will invite them into a liberating community of worship, vocational discernment, and inter-faith dialogue. And, perhaps most challenging of all, we will seek ourselves to alter our own practice of time to put the examined life at the center of students’ Concordia experience.
The threats we may feel from online learning are usually seen as economic: we fear that students will opt for cheaper, all web-based studies, even if we know them to be pedagogically shabby, as so many are. But there is I think a greater threat: that students may earn a baccalaureate composed of bits and pieces even more fragmented, even more atomized than the current credit system now promotes. At Concordia we should build on our residential character and our relational learning with students to fashion an education that goes far beyond credit accumulation to an experience in which freedom, responsibility, rigor, and innovation increase from year to college year, making the senior year radically unlike the first, and enabling our students to commence with the mental agility, imagination, and persuasive powers to thrive.
Our students live now in a world thoroughly interconnected. I have spoken already this evening of increasing diversity, of the need for daily awareness of global interdependence, and of the opportunity to claim our international heritage on campus and at the Concordia Language Villages to create a community of ongoing learning in language and culture. For now I will add only one more thing: the need for us, as neighbors in faith and in shared natural resources, to practice thoughtful and informed stewardship of those resources, in fidelity to God’s good creation and in the understanding that such stewardship is the pathway to health and peace.
The year just ended was a good one at Concordia College. We achieved a budget surplus; we celebrated the 50th year of our Norwegian and Spanish Language Villages, even as we increased adult language learning for corporate and government clients who sought us out; we achieved a great “run-rate” in Advancement of more than $11 million; we witnessed splendid work by the students in undergraduate research, and our research director, Susan Larson, was honored for her service by the Council on Undergraduate Research; faculty scholarship continued apace, including far too many titles for me to mention, but I cannot resist Joy Lintleman’s “Corncobs to Classmates: Swedish Americans at a Norwegian American College”; Jacqueline Bussie and our students launched the Forum for Faith and Life to national attention, soon to be enhanced by the visit of Eboo Patel as our convocation speaker; in necessary quiet, our counseling staff upheld the lives of students in need; our Facilities staff, beyond the call of usual duties, worked with students to retrofit a rental on 6th Street to become the living/learning EcoHouse; and not least, Culinary Manager Phil Edwards, invited at the last minute to compete in the Culinary Challenge at the National Association of College and University Food Services annual conference in Boston won a silver medal and a fourth place finish.
How glad I am to be here. How proud I am of our college. How much I value the genius of the place as we seek to educate the whole of our students, for the whole of their lives, for the sake of the whole world. I ended my inaugural address in April—with the beautiful help of the Concordia Choir—citing Aaron Copland’s The Promise of Living, born as his libretto says of loving our friends and our labor. How blessed we are to have such friends and such, such vital labor to do.
Soli deo gloria.
1Line 57. See http://rpo.library.utoronto.ca/poems/epistles-several-persons-epistle-iv
2Curriculum: A History of the American Undergraduate Course of Study Since 1636 (San Franciso: Jossey-Bass1977), 54-55.
6See Jessica M. Shedd, “The History of the Student Credit Hour,” New Directions in Higher Education, Number 122 (Summer 2003), 8. For the full text of Cooke’s essay: http://www.archive.org/stream/academicindustri05cookuoft/academicindustri05cookuoft_djvu.txt.
7Lucas, American Higher Education: A History, 2nd edition (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006)172.
10Rudolph, p. 122.
11See for example, the 1947 Truman Commission on Higher Education, striking in the years immediately following WWI for its emphasis on education for democratic citizenship—in sharp contrast with contemporary leading political statements, which focus solely on individual and national economic gain. See Philo A. Hutcheson, “The Truman Commission’s Vision for the Future” (2007), at http://www.nea.org/assets/img/PubThoughtAndAction/TAA_07_11.pdf. For a very recent example, see A Crucible Moment: College Learning & Democracy's Future, published by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (2012).
13See http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/cantwait/final_-_education_blueprint_-_an_economy_built_to_last.pdf and http://www.mittromney.com/blogs/mitts-view/2012/05/chance-every-child-0.
14Epistle to Burlington, l. 57.
15Matthew 10:16 (NRSV).
16Recent four-year graduation rates at our local colleges are as follows: Concordia, 63%; MSUM, 20%; NDSU, 22%. Source: IPEDS, U.S. Department of Education (2010, 2011).
17Source: Career Center Destination Survey About 2010 Graduates (January 2012), Office of Institutional Research, Concordia College.