Liz Coleman's call to reinvent liberal arts education

Bennington president Liz Coleman delivers a call-to-arms for radical reform in higher education. Bucking the trend to push students toward increasingly narrow areas of study, she proposes a truly cross-disciplinary education — one that dynamically combines all areas of study to address the great problems of our day.

TEDTalks is a daily video podcast of the best talks and performances from the TED Conference, where the world’s leading thinkers and doers give the talk of their lives in 18 minutes. Featured speakers have included Al Gore on climate change, Philippe Starck on design, Jill Bolte Taylor on observing her own stroke, Nicholas Negroponte on One Laptop per Child, Jane Goodall on chimpanzees, Bill Gates on malaria and mosquitoes, Pattie Maes on the “Sixth Sense” wearable tech, and “Lost” producer JJ Abrams on the allure of mystery. TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design, and TEDTalks cover these topics as well as science, business, development and the arts. Closed captions and translated subtitles in a variety of languages are now available on, at Watch a highlight reel of the Top 10 TEDTalks at


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42 thoughts on “Liz Coleman's call to reinvent liberal arts education

  1. Look at her anaysis and look at where we are…it's gotten worse; hope that the current President of Bennington has kept that framework, we need somewhere where change agents who know how to know are engaged in saving the world.

  2. Speech is a class usually taken as a freshman, and I feel that she would benefit from retaking the class. That was a boring and poorly given speech which left me not caring what she was talking about. If you have to look at your notes every three seconds you needed to prepare much better. To be on the Ted stage, I would have hoped to see something of much higher quality.

  3. What a god awful nightmare of confused liberal babbling! A confused woman, indeed. Surely Coleman realizes that one of the reasons that "traditional" American liberal arts education has been "degraded" is not because of the Bush Administration ("shredding of the Constitution") or because of the GOP's theocratic leanings, but because elite WASP culture has been degraded (due to the 1960s obsession with individualist "finding oneself" mentality and defining that journey as everything non-elite, non-WASP) and replaced by post-modernism, influenced by Frankfurt Marxist thinkers and their ilk. After listening to this, I can understand where David Coleman got has confused notions for the creation of Common Core. Good grief, someone help us. These people will not have control over my education. No.

  4. I wanted to like this TEDTalk, but what a load it turned out to be. The main theme of her presentation is not enough action by academia to promote further liberal enlightenment, which I would argue is the main problem with American higher education. I agree with some of her points, especially academic specialization, but promotion of individual specialness, celebration of oppressed populations, and anti-establishment groupthink has long supplanted academics in our premier universities. Academics and knowledge solidified and propelled us as a culture and a nation for our first 200 years; unless drastic change is made within our institutes of higher learning we will continue the intellectual backslide begun decades ago.

  5. So many platitudes and empty cliches. It sounds like all she wants is to create more liberal social justice warriors to influence politics. Yeah, how is that working out for all of those students who are trying to get a job after going into debt to get a worthless degree in some sort of "victims studies" major.

  6. What a boring speaker!! Reading from her notes continually! She is one of the reasons why US education is pitiful. She can't even deliver one lesson without continually looking at her notes. IOW, she doesn't know her subject well enough to speak extemporaneously.

  7. I kept an open mind when watching this speech. Seven years later, I can connect some similarities between her concerns and today's liberal arts system.

  8. "There is no such thing as a viable democracy made up of experts, zealots, politicians and spectators."

    *Facepalm* No, because that's just only been the bedrock of democratic development and indeed our civilization for thousands of years…

  9. Liberal arts seems to be able to vote cancer, feed the world, produce resources and fix the economy. When trigonometry is only reached in high school, we NEED some real improvement in education before we can obsess ourselves with liberal art. Learning more and more about less and less? – specialisation. Google it pls. If you know what is google

  10. This was the worst of all the Tedtalks I've seen. It would have been more interesting to read the transcript. She believes that a new building is going to change the direction of education. Her elitest acedemic attitude is exactly opposite of what we need. I agree with a broad education.The public school system is failing and students are not ready for the rigors of work or university. Specialized schools prepare them for employment and are unfortunately necessary.

  11. This speaker speaks eloquently but it's pretty empty fluff. There is plenty of opportunity in college to pursue either a classical liberal arts education, or indeed any program of study, or greater specialization in one subject. Most students pursue a degree as an investment in a future career; only the wealthiest immune from career pressure can realistically engage in learning for learning's sake. Sorry to say, this society can't afford to have everybody pursuing learning for learning's sake.

  12. Bennington and most modern colleges could never agree to a program of liberal arts education. Could you imagine Americans students studying Nietzsche, Hegel, Schiller when most American professors can't read them effectively? COuld you imagine sitting on a table with American students for a discussion on great books? Like their professors, our students have never cared about a universal education. Liz Coleman has never had a liberal education herself.

  13. should have… But it didn't…. Like all leftist movements they "feel good" to believe in, but all fail in realty.

  14. There is only one course in liberal arts now. Victims studies. I'll save students the $80,000. White, heterosexual, Christian males are responsible for everything that has ever gone wrong in anyone's life. Your liberal arts degree is in the mail. Good luck getting a job.

  15. The numbers are based on averages. If anything desegregation should have brought minority scores up.

  16. So why do you think America's education system that was on top of the world for so long started to decline in 1960's?

    Yup you guessed it… Desegregation.

  17. …"public good"
    only had through freethought.. instead of theocratic hatred…
    the phobias pushed by fundamentalist homophobic parents is sad.. i witnessed it today in person.
    "…opinions simply won't do"
    "do you belive in god!?"… "steve jobs died early because he was atheist…"
    they tell their children this.. or xtian cable channels perhaps.. still.. shame.

  18. Stopped reading when she mentioned Post-Modern Deconstructionism. What a fucking snob. If anyone reading this comment THINKS they disagree, I ask that you read wikipedia's Deconstruction article, then come back and tell me I'm wrong.

  19. @BaronVonLichtenstein In other countries, parents take the responsibility for all those other important parts of life that American families — aside from fundamentalists and cultists — have abdicated.

  20. I knew TED first from Sir Ken Robinson's speech, and loved it. Then I got here. I watched this the first time and agreed with most of the comments that her way of presenting the speech discredited what she tried to address. But I had to do a paper on liberal education, so I decided to watch it the second time. I realized how deep her message actually was, despite of her tone. Now both her and SKR's talks will be on my work cited page

  21. She better be saying that one main topic of future education is the uses of the force, but in the sense that a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away… Jedi did. I think it's more meaningful in that way.

  22. I could not give this a thumbs up or down. There is a lot to think about here, and I have a feeling I agree with most of her observations and conclusions, but the way she put together and presented her thoughts left me wondering at times if she was speaking my thoughts and beliefs, or the antithesis of. I will be revisiting this video.

  23. There is only one subject in schools now. Conflict theory. Religious students in Iran face less ideology, propaganda and morality training. And you are complaining classes are not ideological enough? If they sign an oath to vote Democratic will you sign one teach them something useful again?

  24. The Soviet Unions system was propaganda? Our students are tools. Their schedules jammed with course work in self-esteem, personal safety, AIDS education, family life, consumer training, driver's ed, holistic health, and gym. The typical American high school student spends only 1, 460 hours on subjects like math, science and history during their four years in high schools. Meanwhile, their counterparts in Japan will spend 3,170 hours on basic subjects.

  25. I loved this message, I thought that it was eloquent and articulate. But like many of the commentators I struggle with the presentation. It is weak and remarkably limp. It does need to be redone with proper passion and emphasis. The lady is obviously struggling to get the message out while the techniques she has at her command are pitifully undercharged. I read all the comments. hasatum is an adversarial dork and tristramshandy fell into his swamp of ego baiting. Ain't Ted Talks great 5stars

  26. I'm sure you are happy to end this. I'm also gratified by your apparent lack of insight into my background and I certainly don't give a damn whether you're Jewish or not. I wouldn't call this an exchange of ideas since you still insist on ignoring arguments and making ridiculous sarcastic smirks.

    I feel sympathy for your students. It makes me wonder: Is this vitriol really just you venting frustration over your students' apathy towards your classes? I hope you can tell me otherwise.

  27. I never argued that the classics were useless or worthless. You are putting words in my mouth. I would have thought the fact that I said I minored in philosophy would have disavailed you of that belief. Perhaps the fact that I majored in English will further convince you? I did say that Socrates was a pedophile because that is true. I must admit I have a preference for true statements. I'm also glad to see you realize you have a problem with being uncivil in debates. That's a start at least.

  28. LOL. OK, here goes:

    First, I tried to stay on topic by reiterating the main point that we were talking about inherent versus instrumental value. You ignored this.

    Next, unable or unwilling to supply further argument, you tried insulting my intelligence in a round about way. That is regarded by most as very uncivil.

    Finally, angered by the fact that I pointed out your basic sense of insecurity, you cry with teenage angst that I "don't know what I'm talking about."

    Please, grow up.

  29. I see. Without recourse to an argument, you drop names of writers (who, yes, I've read) and then make a poor and unsupported attempt at damning with faint praise. Your approach shows that I was right when I said that what you were really looking for from education is a sense of superiority. I suggest that you get out more and drop the sarcastic grins.

  30. You are correct that people's nature has not changed but the skills needed have. The majority of what Socrates thought he knew was wrong and useless in today's society. To point at the fact that he knew people and debate but then ignore all of the practical day to day knowledge necessary to survive is exactly the problem I'm pointing out. Students who are facing down poverty see your program as irrelevant to the real problems they face. Will you tell them to take comfort in Shakespeare? Really?

  31. You disagree with what? I thought we were arguing whether education was inherently or instrumentally valuable? Are you going to now try to argue that I should sit happy and smug all because I have critical thinking skills? The value of critical thinking comes from what it allows us to do.

  32. Also, I am not a relativist. Evil is evil whenever it is performed. Many of Socrates's beliefs were savage just as many of the beliefs of today are savage. One can be a genius and still be a savage.

    As for philosophy, I will put it this way: If it helps good people to be better, does it have value? Of course, it has instrumental value. Truth may have inherent value, but education can neither pretend to instill truth nor make students value the truth. Character education has been a fraud.

  33. You still miss my point. While his education had instrumental value for dealing with his own society, it is almost useless today. While his contributions to philosophy remain pertinent, his education in today's world, both practical and ethical, would be drastically devalued. As such, it cannot be said to be inherently valuable since it does not maintain value universally across time. I suggest that you are confusing the universal value of his disposition with the local value of his education.

  34. How about the belief that women are basically chattel? How about the belief that sex with children is a healthy and character building exercise? What about the implicit belief that conquering other people, looting their cities, and taking their people into slavery is fine and good for a Greek land holder?

    You missed my point about genius. Living TODAY he would effectively be a moron; he understands no technology, geography, or science. Living today, his education would be almost worthless.

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