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Creative, Ambitious, and Forward-Looking—Swarthmore’s Institute For The Liberal Arts Receives a $250,000 Grant

By Carol Brévart-Demm

In October, Swarthmore’s Institute for the Liberal Arts—created to preserve and expand the relevance of liberal arts education in an environment where emphasis is shifting toward vocational learning—received a $250,000 grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations to fund institute events for the next two years.

Several programs are already being offered. In early November, campus community members gathered in Kohlberg Hall’s Scheuer Room at noon for the third lecture of the institute’s Second Tuesday Science Café, presented monthly to campus community members by science faculty. While savoring a variety of delicious sandwiches, an audience of science amateurs as well as some actual scientists listened as Professor of Physics Michael Brown, using interesting explanatory charts and graphs, outlined the historical production of energy—using wood, coal, oil, and gas, and—leading, ultimately, to the possibilities for fusion energy.

Initiated by Professor of Biology Amy Vollmer, who opened the Science Café in September with a talk on the human immune system, the lectures aim to increase science literacy among nonscientists. In October, Assistant Professor of Statistics Lynne Steuerle Schofield ’99 talked about Pennsylvania’s K–12 testing system. Associate Professor of Biology Nick Kaplinsky spoke on “hot plants” in December.

Other events that have already occurred include an open faculty lecture in October by President Rebecca Chopp, titled “Against the Grain: Making the Case for the Liberal Arts in the 21st Century.” An evening faculty symposia series on Jonathan Haidt’s A Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion is under way; and plans for the future include a conference on visualizing media futures, an exploration of curricular and campus data collection, and visits by outside scholars who study the state of the liberal arts.

So far, all the events have been well-attended and have generated lively discussions.

“There’s a lot of creative energy as well as critical (or even hostile) attention swirling around U.S. higher education right now,” says Professor of History Timothy Burke, a member of the Institute for the Liberal Arts Committee.

“At least some of that surging wave of anxiety and possibility involves the concept and practice of ‘liberal arts’ and the viability of small, selective residential colleges, which puts Swarthmore squarely in the path of the storm,” Burke adds. “As the Institute takes shape, we’re hoping it can develop into Swarthmore’s distinctive answer to this challenge, drawing on our traditions and the experiences of our faculty and community while also inspiring new engagements with our alumni, our peer institutions, and our national and global publics.”

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