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Checking In From Aspen Symposium on the Future of Higher Education

June 20, 2014

Each June, I try to find time to take part in the Aspen Symposium on the Future of Higher Education because the participants and the range of topics covered go well beyond those typical of higher education meetings. This year was no exception.

A high point was a talk on leadership by Marine Corps General James Mattis (ret.), who served in combat command roles throughout his career, finishing last year in command of operations of the U.S. and 18 other countries throughout the Middle East and south-central Asia.  Jim spoke of his reading on history throughout his career and how it influenced his decisions and leadership, including the challenges of building coalitions that work effectively together. Noteworthy observations:(1) Terrorists everywhere fear education as much as they fear military force.(2) In the military, every leader emerges from an education process within the military without the luxury of "hiring from the outside."  

An interesting lesson for our own colleges, and an opportunity as we bring increasing numbers of veterans to our campus.

Another particularly interesting talk was by Aspen Institute President (and former Time editor and CNN CEO) Walter Isaacson. Walter expanded on his fine graduation speech last year at Pomona College (YouTube) and emphasized a subject close to my own heart: the role of higher education in linking the arts and humanities with the sciences, bridging C. P. Snow's "two cultures" divide. Walter spoke of auditing a tensor calculus course to write on Einstein, and of combining the archival skills of an historian with the interviewing skills of a journalist in his biographies.  True creativity, in his view, requires us to connect the analytic with the artistic, and he cites all of his subjects (including Benjamin Franklin and Steve Jobs) as epitomizing that ability. I'll be first in line for a Leonardo biography if that comes next! --David Oxtoby

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