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Dan Ryan, associate professor of sociology at Mills since 2006, focuses on the intersections of information, technology, and innovation. This essay is a revision of a talk originally presented at Reunion 2013.

do without modern materials like Nylon and Teflon, which didn’t exist before we were born. Contrast that bit of pedagogy with the advice given at a Los Angeles pool party in the film of the novel The Graduate (published in 1963): “one word, Benjamin: plastics.” In the movie, the phrase stands for the corrupt values of Benjamin’s parents’ generation; but, ironically, it also represents precisely the opposite pedagogical impulse from that of our imaginary professor. It’s about the world in which Benjamin will live, not the one that existed before he was born. If graduates of 50 years ago say today that their liberal arts education was “worth it,” what they mean is that was a good preparation for life in the second half of the 20th century. They had teachers who gave them a strong grounding in 5,000 years of history and thought, but also assigned contemporary best sellers such as The Feminine Mystique, Silent Spring, and The Fire Next Time. Books like these pointed toward a world that was about to happen: a world in which the status of women changes profoundly; a world in which an environmental movement emerges and transforms both the

Whether by plan or by chance, their

Looking forward

popular consciousness and public policy;

teachers led those students to major in

This will not be easy. There have been

and a world where generational shifts

the 20th century.

better times than 2014 for being in

around civil rights and racism are under-

And that, I suggest, is the “secret” of a

the small, liberal arts college business.

way. They had teachers who taught math

liberal arts education: it is a transforma-

Almost every factor that supported the

and science in a way that prepared them

tive experience that makes sense for life

expansion of higher education during the

to work in a computer industry that did

in a world that those who design and

20th century points in the opposite direc-

not yet exist. Their teachers did not know

deliver it will not see much of, an edu-

tion today. There is broader demand for

what the future would be, but they man-

cation that makes sense for a world that

access, but less economic mobility to sup-

aged to forge a curriculum that turned

has not yet happened. That is the legacy

port it. Federal and state governments are

out to be the right preparation for the

we should be preserving. At Mills today,

financially squeezed, and legislators are

decades ahead.

our challenge is to figure out what it will

ill-disposed toward state support of edu-

mean to major in the 21st century.

cation. Philanthropy that once supported

The phrase “it turned out” is key.


winter 2015


Mills Quarterly, Winter 2015  

Mills College alumnae magazine

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