Seizing 'an incredible moment in history'

Interview / Douglas Bennet

Douglas Bennet is a Wesleyan alumnus who rose to become president of the institution.

Along the way, he earned a doctorate in Russian medieval history, but otherwise bypassed the usual academic route to the post.

He was an aide to three senators, assistant to Vice President Hubert Humphrey, head of the Agency for International Development, and assistant secretary of state for international-organization affairs under President Clinton.

From 1983 to '93, he presided over National Public Radio.

Currently, higher education confronts stark questions, Dr. Bennet says: Does a liberal-arts education matter anymore? If it does, what should the curriculum include?

On shunning "core curriculum" requirements and adopting instead eight "essential capabilities" to master before graduating:

When I went to Wesleyan, that's what there was - a core humanities curriculum in history and so forth,... and I think it worked quite well. But it's also true that when I went to college we believed there was a limited amount of knowledge and that if you just worked hard you could learn it all.

There was probably a false security, maybe an elitism in the traditional core curriculum, an idea that we can tell who the educated gentlemen are because, first, they're all men, and second, they all know Aristotle. That was probably frail in 1959 and it's hopeless today. There has to be something robust in its place and we think we've got it.

On the vitality of liberal arts:

We want durable learning - the idea that students can go forward after graduation and constantly refresh their sense of how knowledge is accomplished and why. So when you're confronted with new circumstances, you have these skills.

On the need for "moral" education as a component of the liberal arts:

Third on our list of essential capabilities is "moral sensibility." What we mean by that is not that you teach a set of morals - but you do insist that people have sensibility in ethical matters and understand moral principles so they can function to some degree unselfishly as leaders.

Let's imagine a future world in which the reference points aren't that clear. It's moving very fast. Knowledge is accelerating the means of interaction. You can buy anything off the Internet. You need something like moral sensibility, which we have called "ethical reasoning." We're putting that label on a variety of courses that teach it. It's one of our pillars.

On change in higher education:

The essential point on how institutions make choices has to do with their inertia and how much they have of it. It can be positive inertia. But whether you can change to meet the future has a lot to do with how you feel about change and whether change is a friend or not.

On competition:

One of the critical things to be able to do these days is to be able to balance the competitive forces in higher education with your own internal gyroscope. What I've tried to do with the academic plan, without looking at what anybody else was doing, was to set our own gyroscope, make our own best guesses about the requirements of the future. [Ratings] can be damaging if you're in a fog. But they're perfectly helpful if you're fairly clear about your own objective.

On the social changes of recent decades and the 21st century's promise for the liberal arts:

In the 1960s and during several generations, higher education has been buffeted by and wrestling with a host of nonacademic concerns and external forces. Fast forward to the 1990s when I arrived: We have challenges, but we don't have those kinds of external pressures. Academia is free today to set its own course. I think we have to take advantage of that in lots of ways.

We have to be sure we're clear about our own objective. Even the political correctness has sort of evaporated. We're free of even those cobwebs. So it's just an incredible moment in history.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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