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Former Barnard president stresses importance of liberal arts

A Q&A with Judith Shapiro.
University Business, September 2013
Judith Shapiro, former president and professor of anthropology at Barnard College in New York City from 1994 to 2008.
Judith Shapiro, former president and professor of anthropology at Barnard College in New York City from 1994 to 2008.

Judith Shapiro, former president and professor of anthropology at Barnard College in New York City from 1994 to 2008, had been “happily retired” before assuming the leadership role at the Teagle Foundation in July. The New York-based foundation’s grant-making is focused on improving undergraduate student learning in the arts and sciences.

While at Barnard, she helped redefine liberal arts education with the highly regarded “Ways of Knowing” program that explores the cross-disciplinary roots of human knowledge. Among many other honors, Shapiro was named one of Vanity Fair’s “200 Most Influential Women in America” in 1998.

When it came to Teagle, Shapiro ultimately couldn’t resist the call. “It basically is about what I most care about in life. I love teaching. My whole life has been spent in higher ed, and there really isn’t another foundation that is as focused on liberal arts higher education.”

Tell me about the work the foundation does and what you hope to bring to it.
Teagle is a relatively small foundation in terms of its endowment in the amount of grant-making it can do. But it has an influence far beyond its size. Its focus has always been on making sure students learn as well as they possibly can. Not long ago we began to look at faculty pedagogy. I feel very much a part of that tradition. And I’m very concerned with keeping up that momentum on teaching and how it can be most effective. I am also interested in the content of curricula, which is an interesting project at a time when it’s no longer easy just to agree on what things every educated person ought to know. And so, I’m interested in where curriculum and pedagogy come together. We want to influence the culture of faculty members so that they see themselves not just as a community of scholars, but really as a community of teachers as well.

You’ve said that faculty members understand the value of sharing the results of other research, but they’ve resisted doing the same thing with teaching. What’s behind that resistance?
It varies by institutional type. For example, I have immense respect for the nation’s great research universities and what they produce in terms of new knowledge, and scholarship, and science.

But when they talk about their work, it is clear that their work is their scholarship. They would never engage in discussions of their teaching. That’s everyone’s private business. What’s happened is that in the great competitive race—the prestige hierarchy, the noxious effects of all those U.S. News and World Report rankings—other institutions have adopted the value system of these research universities and that’s not where it should be for them. They should be paying more attention to their students. You can understand why teaching loads might be low when research and scientific activity expectation is very high. But they’ve driven down teaching loads at many other places where it makes less sense.

How can that change?
The reward structure clearly can change that. But changes in teaching can create excitement among the faculty as well. We’ve seen that with the Reacting to the Past program. The faculty shouldn’t see teaching as a form of galley slavery, but look what’s happening to faculty now with contingent faculty struggling to make a living on a per-course salary. There are so many huge problems there.

Where I see Teagle having an effect is in finding innovative, rewarding programs that faculty members are developing together as a community and helping them to spread.

What is the Reacting to the Past program?
That began at Barnard and is now in over 300 colleges and universities here and abroad. It is something of a Teagle poster child for an example of what really works beautifully. In it students play very complex historical games that really cross time and place. For example, there’s a game set in Greece at the close of the Peloponnesian War where the students have to reconstruct Athenian democracy, and have the trial of Socrates. There’s a game in China where the students are Confucian scholars, arguing with each other in The Forbidden City. There’s one about Newton. There’s one about Galileo. There’s one about Darwin. There’s one about The French Revolution, and several about American history. The students are reading primary texts, major works of various civilizations, and having to write and speak a lot. They get emotionally engaged as well as intellectually. And the faculty—not just junior faculty, but senior faculty—find it a kind of revitalization experience, because they don’t need to teach only in their own highly specialized area.

Do you think gaming will be part of how education changes in coming years?
I think it’s important to consider what is meant by game, because the first thing that comes to mind is online, video games, or virtual reality. Teagle is looking for truly interesting hybrid models of incorporating new technology into liberal arts teaching while combining it with non-virtual, actual human interaction. It’s also very important to define how deep and engaging the materials are. This takes us back, again, to how students learn, but also, what they are learning. What I love about Reacting to the Past is not just that it’s a game, but it’s a game in which you have Plato, and Rousseau, and Edmund Burke, and Confucius, and Thomas Jefferson, and so on. The content that students grapple with by this method is very rich.

We see a growing chorus of pundits and politicians argue that a liberal arts education has declining value in today’s world. What do you say to those people?
There is a perception that there used to be much more training for jobs done by employers as opposed to expecting schools to do the vocational stuff so students can show up ready to do the work.

Historically, however, there’s always been a very strong vocational dimension to American education. It isn’t suddenly that we’ve become utilitarians out of nowhere. So I don’t think that’s an entirely new strand in American culture. But it’s very hard to convince people that one of the things an education should do is make the inside of your head an interesting place to spend the rest of your life.

Andy Delbanco, who wrote College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be (Princeton University Press, 2012), says that a good liberal arts education should give you a first-rate BS detector, no matter whether it’s a logical argument, statistics, a discussion of values, or anything that is important to have a vital civic life. The lack of caring about liberal arts education, I think, will be felt.

Look at all these members of Congress that want to have standardized testing. Can you imagine if there were standardized tests to run for Congress? You want people out there who understand something about the history of their own country, that understand something about another culture so that they’re not just provincials. What can you say if people are deaf to such arguments? You just have to continue caring about what you care about and knowing why it’s so deeply important.

When you were president of Barnard, you said, “It’s unfortunate that some women’s colleges are finding it difficult to remain competitive as there continues to be a compelling need for them.” Let me play devil’s advocate. There are about 47 women’s colleges left in the United States. What is that compelling need?
Look at where the United States is in having women represented in major leadership positions. It certainly isn’t at the top of the international list. Women’s colleges are major support bases and launching pads for women in any number of fields. It’s something I might not have understood if I hadn’t spent so much time in one, because I didn’t go to a women’s college myself. They’re just gender-stereotype-free zones. And our society isn’t there yet.

Now, obviously, women’s colleges are not the only hope for women. If they were, we might as well just all fold our tents and steal away into the desert. But just because something isn’t the whole solution doesn’t mean it isn’t part of it. The diversity that you get in American higher education should have within it a place for these really important centers of strengthening women’s roles in our society and abroad for that matter.

The same thing applies to liberal arts colleges—talk about an endangered species. They are a precious part of the picture.

You were recently named to the president’s council for the online University of the People. What’s your impression of the rapid growth of MOOCs?
The MOOC-mania problem is the result of people wanting to imitate something that has been invested in by very wealthy institutions. You look at Stanford and MIT—very likely places to have highly sophisticated explorations around using new technologies.

So far, what MOOCs best address is access. The University of the People is about expanding access to people that otherwise would not have access to higher education. But there are deeper questions. How do you ensure there’s proper faculty involvement? How can you make students interact with one another in a meaningful way? How can you measure how much they are actually learning?

Then there is the question of a financial model. MIT, Stanford, and Harvard are wealthy institutions whose goal was not to make tons of money out of this stuff. They were interested in exploring it to see how it could improve education. It doesn’t make sense for a whole lot of people to thoughtlessly leap into this field without understanding it, because then it becomes just a fad.