Liz Coleman: How Do We Teach College Students To Ask Big Questions?

Feb 24, 2017
Originally published on August 10, 2018 9:26 am

Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode The Spirit Of Inquiry.

About Liz Coleman's TED Talk

Former Bennington College President Liz Coleman believes higher education is overly-specialized & complacent. She says we need to encourage students to ask bigger questions & take more risks.

About Liz Coleman

Liz Coleman was president of Bennington College from 1987 to 2013. During her time there, she ended the tenure system and dismantled academic silos. Coleman believes that education should emphasize cross-disciplinary, hands-on learning.

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz, and on the show today, ideas about the Spirit Of Inquiry.


RAZ: And when it comes to the unknown on any subject, we're all kind of trained to seek out experts.

LIZ COLEMAN: The model of the expert, which has dominated our intellectual life for a century now, is not a model of inquiry at all.

RAZ: This is Liz Coleman.

COLEMAN: It's a model of command. It's a model of knowing more than the other person. It's a model in which what the expert does is what matters. And the job of the, quote, "student" is to absorb.

RAZ: Liz was president of Bennington College in Vermont for more than 25 years. And she argues that we've lost this desire to be interested in many different things because we live in an age where the expert is king.

COLEMAN: It's not easy when a system is built on that version of accomplishment, when narrowing your sights is treated as a virtue. We all use the language of experts and of separating things.

RAZ: Here's how Liz Coleman put it on the TED stage.


COLEMAN: The progression of today's college student is to jettison every interest except one and within that one, to continually narrow the focus, learning more and more about less and less. This, despite the evidence all around us of the interconnectedness of things. As one moves up the ladder, values other than technical competence are viewed with increasing suspicion. Questions such as, what kind of a world are we making, what kind of a world should we be making, what kind of a world can we be making, are treated with more and more skepticism and move off the table.


RAZ: Liz Coleman says that by narrowing the focus of our questions, we lose out on how they connect to the big ones. And without people thinking about the big questions, there will be consequences. Take, for example, climate change.

COLEMAN: So we have this absurd idea that the scientists should figure out what's wrong with the situation vis-a-vis the environment. And then they hand it over to the politicians that are supposed to figure out what to do. Until the thinking and the action become inseparable, we're not going to get where we need to get.

RAZ: When you think about the people who discover things - right? - the people who we depend on for information, and most of those people are academics or researchers, but then you think about the people who - I'm trying to think of the best way to put it - like 360-degree people who could really communicate a variety of ideas, Renaissance people, in sort of the modern age. I can think of, like, Richard Feynman or Stephen Jay Gould or Neil deGrasse Tyson or Vera Rubin.


RAZ: Like, they stand out because they felt like they could talk about literature and science and the cosmos and philosophy all at the same time.

COLEMAN: Yeah, it's very interesting, and one of the most intriguing things about that - almost all of them are scientists. And it's fascinating that we think of the sciences as the most highly technical of any of the disciplines. So, for example, we think about literature, history, psychology as more available, but in fact, the great leaders who have really made some of their wisdom and their insight available to the largest number of people are almost all scientists.


COLEMAN: Einstein spent a lot of time talking about his ideas and indeed other ideas. That's itself very interesting. What's even more interesting and disconcerting is - what's happened in literature is the opposite so that in literature the criticism has become less and less something that has possible resonance for people across the divides.


COLEMAN: The importance of coming to grips with values like justice, equity, truth, becomes increasingly evident as students discover that interest alone cannot tell them what they need to know when the issue is rethinking education, our approach to health or strategies for achieving an economics of equity. The value of the past also comes alive.

You are not the first to try to figure this out, just as you are unlikely to be the last. Even more valuable, history provides a laboratory in which we see played out the actual as well as the intended consequences of ideas. In the language of my students, deep thought matters when you are contemplating what to do about things that matter.


RAZ: Liz, when you gave this talk eight years ago, it was cautionary. I mean, you were warning. It was a warning. And it was...


RAZ: And some people in the audience might've thought you were being alarmist. And I wonder now, you know, eight years on, when you look at sort of the future and where we're headed as a country, as a culture, are you worried?

COLEMAN: Of course because the risks are huge. And when the risks are huge, you worry. At the same time, I do think that there is a different sense of urgency. What is important is that there is an awakening in this country to the dimensions both of what's at stake and how much it is in danger.

One of the most powerful things to me about the act of thinking and about democracy, actually, is the extent to which being able to engage the challenge of that with other people is an extraordinary experience. It's what's called deliberation. It began the United States. It's a very powerful part of our history and very relevant today because of its absence. And hopefully one of the things that the evident urgencies of our time may generate is a return to that art of people collecting and thinking out loud together.

RAZ: Liz Coleman, former president of Bennington College in Vermont. You can hear her full talk at

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.