Liberal Arts College Planning

Liberal Arts College Planning & Tomorrow’s Exigencies

Liberal Arts College PlanningIn the last three years–as discussed in the previous post on the Liberal Arts College Discount Rate–I’ve been part of two groups to define the relevance of the liberal arts and attempt to plan a liberal arts college.

But what keeps rattling around in my head is a quote from my graduate-school mentor Michel-Rolph Trouillot in Global Transformations:

The future as we knew it is now increasingly fractured into two new parts: a near-present that challenges our technical mastery, and an aftermath, out of real time, that our imagination has yet to seize. While the distance between now and tomorrow shortens, that between tomorrow and the long-term becomes increasingly inscrutable. Worse, the exigencies of this near-present now seem to reduce our grip on a long-term forever postponed. The content of that long-term is open to question. This temporality recalls the accelerated rhythms of finance capital but expands way beyond economic life. The need to adapt quickly to tomorrow’s exigencies, yet the inability to envision beyond them, is now part of the lived experience of an increasing number of human beings. (2003:68; for related discussion see Fragmented Globality: Irony, Paradox, Uncertainty)

Academia should be a place furthest removed from these “accelerated rhythms of finance capital,” and yet, somewhat ironically, it seems more and more college plans become obsolete before they are even deployed. Buffeted by the changing exigencies of a tomorrow that keeps disrupting the now–one year too many students show up with too little money; the next year too few students show up but finances are healthy–the long-term and the medium-term cannot be grasped while we wrestle with the already out-of-control present. Like a colleague said when I asked if classes were prepared: “Teaching is like stepping onto an already-moving treadmill.”

In fact on the same page, Trouillot writes that “until recently political science, economics, and sociology basked in the glow of this mid-term [predictability] and related claims of control.” But putting political scientists, economists, and sociologists on the planning committees no longer insures predictability, control, or even a mid-term of success.

And this is why, as in the previous post, I followed Tim Ingold’s Making into foresight–akin to prophecy–rather than prediction:

This is a matter not of predetermining the final forms of things and all the steps needed to get there, but of opening up a path and improvising a passage. To foresee, in this sense, is to see into the future, not to project a future state of affairs in the present; it is to look where you are going, not to fix an end point. Such foresight is about prophecy, not prediction. And it is precisely what enables practitioners to carry on. (2013:69)

Foresight and prophecy are also all about vision. And here I turn to another favorite quote, from the famous semiotician* C.S. Peirce, as found in Eduardo Kohn’s How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human: “One man’s experience is nothing, if it stands alone. If he sees what others cannot, we call it hallucination. It is not ‘my’ experience, but ‘our’ experience that has to be thought of; and this ‘us’ has indefinite possibilities” (Peirce in Kohn 2013:60).

Certainly not a quote you’ll find in many strategic plans, but worth considering as an example of human foresight and vision as we imagine a shared future.

* Thank you to Eric Michael Kelley on Twitter for a correction here–C.S. Peirce is a semiotician, not a linguist per se as I had originally written.

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