December 21, 2014

Education

A Lifelong Endeavor

Rollins College's president aims to change the way his liberal arts students learn.

Ken Ibold | 6/1/2005
At a time when policy-makers are embracing the need for more technical skills among the workforce, Lewis Duncan is something of a paradox -- a scientist advocating the need for a liberal arts education.

Duncan, who took over as the 14th president of Winter Park's Rollins College last August, may seem like an odd fit for the 120-year-old liberal arts college, what with his bachelor's degrees in physics and mathematics, doctorate in space physics, post-doctoral work at the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center and stint at the Los Alamos National Laboratory as a research scientist. But when he starts to talk, it all starts to make sense.

Rollins College is sound, President Lewis Duncan says, allowing the faculty to concentrate on helping students rather than doing research or seeking grants.

"If your education has solely been one of training you to join the workforce, it's very difficult as technology continues to accelerate. There is no training in any sort of technical field that has a half-life of more than a few years," Duncan says. "And the principle of liberal arts -- that education is a lifelong endeavor -- is essential to technical fields, given the rate of change of technology."

Duncan's goal is to use his technical background to help weave an understanding of technology into the liberal arts curriculum alongside the traditional elements of history, culture, economics, politics, philosophy, religion and values. Doing so, he says, makes sense because technology changes the very nature of society at ever-increasing rates.

His task is made more complicated by the increasing use of standardized tests in high school, which encourages students to think on a more concrete level than required by liberal arts course work, Duncan says. Worse, many of the brightest students often have poor academic habits because they have been bored in school, he says.

"One of the hard things to get (freshmen) to understand is that the first year of college is not grade 13," Duncan says.

The new president has also called on faculty members to add to their understanding of world cultures. He plans to send each one abroad within the next three years. The global exposure, he says, will help foster an understanding of how cultural differences lie at the heart of many modern conflicts.

But mostly Duncan will stand as a blend of the humanities and technology, and he anticipates Rollins students eventually will join him there.

"Science and technology are the application of human knowledge for human benefit, and it's important to understand both sides of the equation, both the technology that can be applied to change the human condition and understanding the human condition and its needs," Duncan says. "In addition to being able to answer questions, I think we all ought to be able to ask the right questions. The broad multidisciplinary education is the right foundation for asking the deeper questions, the fundamental questions about our human condition."

Tags: Central, Education

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