Monday, November 16, 2009

Liberal Arts Colleges and Teaching Leadership

The Washington Post has a blog called "On Leadership" (I guess it's a blog, it feels like one). Today there is a guest column about "Why colleges should teach leadership." The author is a recent (2005) graduate of Harvard. While there, he established a leadership institute, to address what he saw as a gap in the education at Harvard.

He nails the problem:

Education is a college's reason for being, and leadership needs to be a part of the classroom experience. For that to happen successfully, the definition of the classroom must evolve. It should not simply be a place where students hear lectures, but rather an interactive environment that extends beyond the confines of the room itself. Experiential learning emphasizes discussions, projects and team work rather than problem-set solving or textbook-reading.
I completely agree. I went to Swarthmore, a classic liberal arts college, with a strong liberal/progressive tradition. Every administrator, every faculty member, every board member, will tell you that the College teaches leadership, and believes very strongly in doing so.

My experience was completely different. I was the "treasurer" of the Amnesty International chapter on campus. I was effectively president, but you couldn't call yourself president of a student political organization. There wasn't any official prohibition - the College does, after all, have a president - but it just wasn't done. There was an unwritten and unspoken rule that you did not impose a hierarchy on a student political group, because it was supposed to operate by consensus, according to the Quaker tradition (Swarthmore was founded by the Society of Friends, and still hews to some of the traditions of the Quakers, but is officially non-sectarian). It was basically taboo to call proclaim yourself a figure of authority. This was but one example of political correctness.

I was co-president of the campus science fiction club, the Swarthmore Warders of Imaginative Literature. My co-president and I called ourselves "The Presidents Who Go 'Ping!'" after the hopsital scene in Monty Python's the Meaning of Life . But it was, as should be obvious, not a terribly serious organization, so no one minded if we called ourselves president. Besides, one of our predecessors had referred to himself as "Lord God Emperor" or something like that. We were modest in comparison.

The lack of title was the least of my problems learning leadership at Swarthmore. There is one key to teaching leadership that was missing at Swarthmore. Someone has to actually do it. At a college, there has to be someone who makes a commitment to teaching students how to lead. Ideally, each student organization should have a faculty advisor, a mentor who provides guidance by virtue of setting an example, answering questions, and empowering students to make decisions.

I did not have a faculty advisor when I was treasurer of Swarthmore. It never occurred to me to try to find one. I don't know of any student organization that had a faculty advisor, although it's possible that I missed something. The faculty at Swarthmore, were, to their great credit, committed to teaching undergraduates. Many of them were also committed to teaching students about issues of social justice and social criticism - I minored in Sociology specifically so that I could study Critical Theory. They were great at talking the talk.

But they had no idea how to walk the walk. Some of them were personally active in politics. But a professor providing guidance to students on how to be a leader of a political organization just was not part of the social fabric of the college. The College had other means of encouraging students to be politically active - one of the most prestigious scholarships was the Lang scholarship, provided by Eugene Lang, chairman of the board of managers. It required the recipient to take on an off-campus social change project. The college also provided grants to some students who engaged in social change projects - I got $400 to support my internship when I went to Washington to intern for the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. That was great. The College also provided Amnesty International with some money out of the student activities budget, which was good. But I also had an internship with Amnesty's Mid-Atlantic regional office in Washington, and didn't get any financial support for that.

Over the course of a couple of years running Amnesty International on campus, and two internships in Washington fighting the death penalty, I had a grand total of two conversations with faculty/staff about my political activities: once, when someone told me that they were sending me a check for $400 for the grant, and once about a parking ticket (I drove a college van to an Amnesty event).

I never had a single conversation with any Swarthmore faculty about my personal political activism. Never got any guidance about how to make decisions as a leader. Never got any advice about what to do when someone in the organization is doing something wrong.

I had lots of conversations, and wrote many papers, about what is wrong with capitalism. This, of course, was a time when my real-world economic experience consisted of summer jobs as a dishwasher. But no conversations about what I personally could actually do to make a difference.
I went to Washington for my internships because I was so sick of theory that I just had to find some way of getting some hands-on practical experience. I arranged my own internships, again with no help whatsoever from anyone at the college. I had two great mentors in Washington: a guy named Jim O'Dea at Amnesty, and a woman named Leigh Dingerson at the NCADP. They both gave me good projects to work on. They were both excellent managers, with real passion for their causes. I am, all these years later, still grateful to both of them. But both of those experiences were completely removed from my college education.

Do I sound a bitter? Maybe just a little. This is one reason that I do not donate money as an alumni to Swarthmore (there are several reasons for that). After I left, the College started paying more attention to this issue: they created a position for someone to provide this guidance. I applied for that job, but didn't get it (the person who was hired was a friend, and an excellent choice). I understand that the College has spent money on building facilities to support student activism. That's all well and good, but too late for me.

I was thrilled to read this column in the WaPo, because the need is urgent.

Just like cars from Detroit, our existing educational models works, but significant advances have taken place in the field, and these models haven't always kept up.
Liberal arts advocates argue that the purpose of a liberal arts education is to teach students "how to think." That's great. For me, however, it was not necessary. I had a fantastic high school education (in suburban Detroit) that taught me how to think. Swarthmore did not teach me how to think - I already knew that. I got some good practice on how to argue, but Swarthmore did not teach me how to think.

What Swarthmore also did not teach me, and what I desperately needed, was how to make decisions. That is an essential duty of leadership - it's what leaders do. The problem wasn't just the lack of mentors, but my particular curriculum. I majored in philosophy, and minored in English and Sociology & Anthropology (S&A is one department at Swat). Philosophers make decisions about theory, but they do not make decisions that affect other people. There weren't a lot of role models for leadership among contemporary women poets or in Joyce's Ulysses. Sociologists may argue about what leadership is, but there aren't many opportunities to practice it in the classroom.

The problem with lack of mentors was particular to Swarthmore in the late 1980's, but there is a general porblem teaching leadership on American campuses. One thing leaders have to do is evaluate risk. But professors with tenure are insulated from risk. Leaders take risks in the hopes of reaping rewards. Any good leader is going to have their share of failures, just by virtue of being human. But any good leader is also going to be someone who learns from their failures.

Professors, however, being insulated from failure by tenure, do not have the same opportunity to learn from risks taken that do not work out. So professors, at least those with tenure, will probably be poor teachers of leadership. Tenure grants them permission to create impregnable, and very intellectually sophisticated, defense mechanisms justifying why their ideas don't match reality. My favorite joke about economists is that an economist is someone who sees something working in practice, and wonders if it will work in theory.

I would love to see more efforts at teaching leadership on American college campuses. What any effort to do so, however, must take into account one thing: there are already many high-profile people at colleges who teach students how to lead, how to make difficult decisions, and how to motivate others to achieve a common goal. These people take risks, and are held accountable when they fail.

These people are called "coaches."

1 comment:

ITF said...


A friend of mine writes some of the columns you're referring to. Best leadership education I got as an undergraduate was running student clubs. Newspapers and magazines, even the silly ones, are serious logistical and management challenges. So being "Lord of Most Creation" of the Yellow Journal was actually quite the education.