Looking to Dartmouth's future
DAVID T. McLaughlin -- former football star, Air Force pilot, and chairman of the Toro lawn equipment company -- has for the past four years held the sometimes thankless job of a college president. He's an alumnus of Dartmouth College and only the second of its 14 presidents -- spanning 216 years -- to have come to the post from the world of business. He arrived at a time when this prestigious Ivy League school, like colleges and universities throughout the country, was coming face to face with an array of tough choices.Skip to next paragraph
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Those choices have come into clear focus in recent months, as calls for educational reform -- heretofore directed primarily at secondary schools -- have reverberated through the halls of higher education, and federal belt-tightening has jarred campus financial-planning offices. Brows furrowed, men and women in Mr. McLaughlin's position are having to find answers to some fundamental questions:
What are the legitimate components of a liberal education in the 1980s and beyond? How open can, or should, the doors of higher education be at a time of dwindling governmental aid? What kind of a leadership role should colleges and universities assume in today's world?
McLaughlin, a man who looks as if he's still capable of snaring a football, took an hour recently to tackle these questions. Seated at a small conference table in his office, he turned to the question of whether colleges -- like high schools -- should heed the reformer's cry to return to the basics.
``There's been a running dialogue on a need to reestablish and return to the classical liberal education where Western civilization, Plato, and Aristotle are centerpieces on a required basis,'' he notes. ``As I would look at where Dartmouth is, we're probably closer here to a classical liberal arts education than most other institutions,'' but not so close as in the past.
At Dartmouth and elsewhere, he explains, a host of new programs have been ``superimposed'' on that core curriculum. These newcomers range from computer training to various ethnic and women's studies programs. The latter areas, particularly, are frequent targets of critics who see a dilution of learning at colleges and universities.
McLaughlin, on the other hand, views these courses as reflective of change in society, and therefore as needed. But he stands firmly behind the traditional liberal arts curriculum as well. The central ``challenge,'' he says, is: ``Can you do both, and do it effectively?''
Dartmouth is struggling toward a way of ``productively interlocking'' the basics and the newer programs, according to its president. It's a slow, sometimes contentious process that underscores wide differences of opinion among faculty members, he says, but it's ``absolutely essential.''
At Dartmouth, calls for reform have reinforced the value of the traditional liberal arts, but they're ``challenging the institution to say that we've got to adjust to the realities of what our students will face in the next 10, 15, 20, or 30 years,'' says McLaughlin.
This gets at what he sees as one of the major differences between the world of industry and that of higher education: a vastly extended ``time frame for decisionmaking.'' There's no way you can give students all the technical data they'll need over the next 30 years -- it may not even exist yet. But, he says, ``you can, based on fundamental values, lessons of history, and appreciation for those building blocks of knowledge, give the student the tools to address unforeseen challenges . . . and to take what data is then available, synthesize it, and use it effectively in one's life. ``It all begins with the basic liberal arts, but I don't think it can end there,'' he sums up.
And what about the students -- what are their preferences when it comes to course offerings?