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
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
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.
PHOTOS BY DANA DAV IS