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Botstein speaks on education and democracy

Leon Botstein, President of Bard College and Leon Levy Professor in the Arts and Humanities, paid a visit to the College Thursday to speak of his thoughts on the relationship between education and democracy. Botstein is the author of the book “Jefferson’s Children: Education and the Promise of American Culture” and is an internationally recognized conductor. He has served as the music director for both the American and Jerusalem Symphony Orchestras. Botstein is a strong supporter of educational reform including educating prisoners and completely altering the current American high school system. Max Calenberg from the S&B sat down with him for a few questions.

Max Calenberg:Can you summarize your views of endowments in the college education system currently in the United States?

Leon Botstein:The purpose of an institution is not to commit to an endowment. An endowment should enable an institution to do the things it needs to do and I’m suggesting that a time has come for institution to broaden their agenda of what they define as their mission. The management of institutions with endowments is probably too conservative in terms of their definition of mission. They are not in the business of scholarship and research, the educational mission needs to be broadened in ways that are appropriate to each institution, there is no universal answer.

MC: What do you think the majority of a college’s endowment should go towards?

LB: Endowments are needed to support everything a college does—its public missions, scholarships, faculty salaries, buildings—all kind of things. Endowments are there to enable the institution. But there has been a tendency to stress and define quality to by the size and growth of the endowment alone. I think we’ve over done.

MC:Considering that you’ve been the president of Bard for 35 years, what changes have you seen in liberal arts community during that time period?

LB:The definition of liberal arts, principally, has not changed. The delivery of the liberal arts has always [had] to adjust to the political and social realities that every generation faces. The ones we face now happen to include the place of America economically in the world, the question of future of the American educational system, the role of science in the conduct of the modern world and the thresh for democracy. So those are issues that define our agenda, the instruments we use for that agenda, which are the disciplines of learning­—all have a place, from the Classics to Physics.

MC:Do you think that all Liberal Arts Colleges should run at least one high school?

LB:Yes, I believe every institution should take responsibility for one or more public high schools. And use online capacity to train teachers who are in our disciplines. So people who teach Math, Physics, Biology should have a regular relationship with high school teachers in those subjects.

MC:You are also a strong advocate for educating inmates, however is that not possibly a waste of resources, because any job that an inmate may become qualified for by getting a Bachelors degree would not hire that person because of his of her criminal record?

LB:There’s no doubt there will be prejudice against you but that’s the case no matter what happens—so is that prison better educated if they have a BA from Grinnell or Bard? Yes. We need to fight that prejudice for someone who has gotten a BA and has a criminal record…And are there criteria to determine who deserves that second chance? Does a person who studied and earned a degree of a high quality while incarcerated not belong at the head of the line for a second chance? And, if there is nobody willing to give them a second chance what does that tell us about our society? Then we should have an incarceration system where once you get convicted, just shoot them. ‘Cause they’ll have no life.

MC:How do you think President Obama has done in terms of dealing with education?

LB: think Obama is the best hope the country has had in decades. I hope and pray that he succeeds, that the midterm elections aren’t too catastrophic for the Democrats and that he is reelected. I understand this necessity to thread a middle course and I think all that is trying to be done in education is good. I would hope that more can be done, more in support of university system, state university system, and reinvestment of federal investment in universities. I hope that reform of the system goes to things like early college and other initiatives that are not completely tied the charter school movement. I think there will be resources for those things. Finally, I hope that there is a real thought given to investing in teacher recruitment and teacher training—both in service and pre-service training.

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