The spaces we inhabit shape and record the nature of our interactions. Anyone who doubts this should spend some time on the second floor of the DeWitt Wallace Library at Macalester.

This past summer, with the enthusiastic support of the library staff, we transformed the second floor from an expanse of shelves into an open, flexible, and innovative space for the campus community. It now includes the home for our entrepreneurship program; an “idea lab” in which students can create things using tools ranging from a sewing machine to a 3D printer; a state-of-the-art classroom; more room for students and faculty to work with the college archives; and audio-visual technology that will allow students, staff, and faculty to communicate clearly with people all over the world. It also includes lots of tables and chairs and walls lined with many, many whiteboards.

(An aside, for those inclined to mourn or object to the decline of the book: almost all the volumes on the floor were simply moved to other parts of the building.)

(Second aside: whiteboards are pretty low-tech, but I confess that I prefer the chalky messiness of even lower-tech blackboards. Generally I find that I am in the minority on this question.)

In a sense, the redesign was a behavioral experiment: what would students do when presented with so open and flexible a space? The answer, delivered very quickly, was that they would inhabit it and make it their own. They would use it to work and relax both individually and in groups. And they would show us, through those whiteboards, those things about which they were inclined to think and write.

The four examples presented here were not staged and are utterly representative of what one would find in this space nearly every day. They were captured last semester, but similar images could be captured at this moment. What they show us, in essence, is the nature of a liberal arts education. They show us students working on—thinking about—subjects ranging from mathematics to religious studies to language to psychology.

I find these scrawls of ink on…well, whatever it is a whiteboard is made of…strangely moving. If some anthropologist from the future were to transport back and stare at these walls, that person would see, in all its breadth and complexity, the mind of Macalester.

Higher education in general and liberal arts education in particular are these days criticized and caricatured in ways that I find deeply frustrating. Students, we are told, are fragile and disengaged. Faculty are not teachers but indoctrinators. Administrators are thoughtless technocrats. And colleges are not doing the essential work of preparing students to move through the world with purpose and effectiveness. These misperceptions are dangerous in that they lead to public attitudes and public policy that hurt our educational system and, by extension, our civic, economic, and intellectual life.

I offer, in response, whiteboards. This is what our students are thinking and learning, the same kinds of things that smart people have tried to think about and learn more or less forever. This is what our faculty are doing: not indoctrinating, but teaching chemistry and history and linguistics. This is what a liberal arts education provides: important ideas to wrestle with and a community of fellow learners.

Given the chance to infuse a space with meaning, our students have chosen to make it a space that reveals creativity, collaboration, and an engagement with the liberal arts.

Albert Einstein is reported to have said, “I fear the day that technology will have surpassed human interaction. The world will have created a generation of idiots.” Actually there is no record that he said it, though he said stuff sort of like it and if he had said it he would have been right.

The second floor of the library proves that, at least at Macalester, we have not yet entered a world devoid of human interaction or wholly populated by idiots. Indeed, it’s written all over the walls.


January 30 2018

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