10/24/2012 11:10 am ET Updated Dec 24, 2012

Hedgefunders, Part 4: From Colleversity to Collever-City

Last week we envisioned a new era of collaboration among colleges and universities. Then we argued for a more expansive alliance, a vertical integration embracing K-12 and community (2-year) colleges as well. We even began to propose alliances between higher ed and the other social sectors -- government, business, cultural institutions, hospitals. As we move from the senseless boxes that confine us to a more synergistic, curvy vision of cooperation among all of our social institutions, the Colleversity becomes a ColleverCity.

That is, we take the example of the sciences, where universities have linked to corporate and government life for decades, and with spectacular results, and we extend the linkage to all fields of a liberal arts education. We create a continuing commerce between the academic grove and the city of social urgencies.

Let's grant there is good reason why professors in the humanities and social sciences have distrusted a too-practical education. Americans display a tendency to subordinate all other aspects of human experience to a narrow, overly-literal notion of practicality. What can be a strength -- how do we take knowledge and make something happen -- can become a weakness when it turns into a disdain for that pure thinking that creates knowledge in the first place. And this cynicism toward the joy of discovery for its own sake is worse than ever today, for we are living at a time when college is seen only as a servant to an individual's career prospects. Self-discovery and the acts of discovery and reflection have never been so discounted. In such an era of Dickensian Gradgrindism, it is tempting to make college learning more theoretical and oppositional than ever before.

That would be a terrible mistake. It already has been a terrible mistake. Certainly the capacity to stand apart from mainstream society and critique it is a fundamental value of the liberal arts. But learning, deep knowledge, should constitute society rather than merely carp about it. The best way for the liberal arts, for colleges and universities, to create a renaissance in the twenty-first century is not to become more separate and abstruse but to become more worldly -- more cosmopolitan and real, but on our own terms.

Change "colleversity" to "collevercity" then, because this new hybrid will include a dynamic and continuing relationship to the actual challenges of contemporary life, applying the learning of the centuries and the newest discoveries in all academic fields to every major human problem. The physical sciences and medical sciences already do exactly this -- we would have no electrical power or computers or vaccines otherwise. We need only apply the same principle of tech transfer to fields ranging from political science to literature to dance to create our ColleverCity.

In such an institution, learning will test itself upon the stage of the world. As Lee Shulman, former head of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, has argued, the three basic complaints of students toward their learning are "I thought I knew it but I didn't," "I know it but I don't know what to do with it," and "I knew it at one time but forgot it." The experiential component to learning cures each one of these ills.

The time is right. Probably the most under-reported good-news story of our times is the unprecedented civic energy of this generation of college students. During my open hours as president at Drew University, students most frequently visited me not to ask for something for themselves but for money and means to begin volunteer programs for the public good. One of the very few positive effects of the insane pressure on high school students to be accepted at this or that prestigious institution has been a new emphasis on volunteerism. And many universities have found means for attaching this positive impulse to the curriculum, to actual courses. By that, rather than just do-goodism (which is good indeed regardless), civic engagement comes to mean the application of learning to social challlenges, a two-way flow between classroom and lived experience, each informing the other.

At Drew, for example, groups of Economics majors have teamed with bankers from Investors Bank to help low-income families plan their finances more strategically. Or again, many of the college and university groups that have helped in the rebuilding of the city of New Orleans and its surround have combined their learning from courses on everything from urban planning to the psychological and spiritual dimensions of loss to inform the practical assistance they have provided. And conversely, in dealing with the realities of actual people, with dry-walling houses and restoring businesses, these students could bring back to their campuses kinds of understanding that no cloistered classroom ever could provide.

In a recent opinion piece in The New York Times, Michael Roth, the president of Wesleyan University, quotes the great educational philosopher John Dewey: "The inclination to learn from life itself and to make the conditions of life such that all will learn in the process of living is the finest product of schooling." Theory and practice are not either/ors. Instead, Roth writes, "The key is to develop habits of mind that allow students to keep learning, even as they acquire skills to get things done." At our UniverCity, we simply close the gap between the habits and the skills, the learning and the living. Or as Harvard's Louis Menand writes, "You can only teach a virtue by calling upon people to exercise it."

The more we can foster collaborations between colleges and universities with the other social sectors in sharing facilities, people, and forms of expertise, the more we make this kind of engaged education not only possible but natural and inevitable.

This does constitute a major swerve in the history of the liberal arts. Between 1890 and 1920, as Douglas Bennett, former president of Earlham College, has shown, the college curriculum exploded from a classical and highly restricted model to the twenty-plus modern academic fields. Perhaps in reaction to this fast expansion of what constituted an education, the next several decades practiced an extended purification rite. Anything deemed practical or worldly was expelled from the liberal arts, which became increasingly suspicious of the everyday world. Out went law, medicine, education, business. The result has been a split between professional education and the liberal arts that does no one any benefit. And within the liberal arts, each discipline tended to complement its impressive depth with a high wall separating it from all other disciplines. In its extreme moments, the liberal arts became illiberal and self-destructive.

But the "Studies" movement -- Women's Studies, American Studies -- and other forms of interdisciplinarity in the last third of the 20th century pushed back, representing a felt need to let life in its wholeness back in, to give social realities a greater existence in academic places. The ColleverCity is its full flowering. The European renaissance many centuries ago did not consist only in the recovery of classical learning in a Christian context but also in new alliances between the arts and sciences -- the figure of DaVinci is the irresistable model -- and between the cities and the schools. Even the enlightened patrons of great wealth then have our own counterparts now, a Gates for a Medici.

In all, there are no persuasive excuses. We can have our own renaissance for the right asking, and the ColleverCity can bring it about.