Five Ways Mellon and Liberal Arts Colleges Drive Social Change


Fort Lewis College received support to pursue a multi-pronged approach to revitalizing Native and Indigenous languages. Photo courtesy of Fort Lewis College.

Mellon works with colleges to attract and train the next generation of scholars and activists through its “Humanities for All Times” grant initiative.

To tackle the most complex issues facing our society, future changemakers must develop excellent communication skills, learn to interpret data, be aware of important historical context, and have an insatiable drive to make the world better.

In the higher education landscape, liberal arts colleges are uniquely positioned to teach these skills. Not only do these institutions prioritize teaching students to think critically and communicate clearly, but many also foster the development of strong moral and civic character through research and learning opportunities that foster the engagement with local people and local issues. And because of their small size, liberal arts colleges can mount curricular initiatives that reach undergraduates from a range of majors, and even the entire student body.

Encouraging students to become informed and engaged in their communities is a key aspect of Mellon’s latest initiative, Humanities for all times. Through this program, liberal arts colleges will develop programs that focus on social justice and reach people from a wide variety of backgrounds who want to effect change.

“Part of the reason we want to attract a diversity of students to the humanities is that all scholars bring their own stories, lived experiences and cultural insights to their work,” says Maria Sachiko Cecire, program manager at higher education in Mellon. .

“How much richer will the next generation of humanities research be if it is done by scholars who can think, interpret and connect in ways that have too often been excluded from the academy?” asked Cecire. “How much more vibrant will our communities, our workplaces and our popular culture be if students from all walks of life spend time engaging with the beautiful and terrible complexity of human life and take that thinking with them everywhere? where does their career take them?

To answer these questions, Mellon works with liberal arts colleges in multiple ways to attract and train the next generation of scholars and activists. Keep reading to find out how.

photo of female student helping her peers to gather and take notesOccidental College’s core curriculum for incoming students will include courses based on social justice themes such as health and dignity. Photo courtesy of Occidental College.

1. Redesign programs
Through his Humanities for all times initiative, Mellon recently awarded more than $16.1 million in grants to 12 liberal arts colleges to develop programs that prioritize social justice. This means not only educating students about some of the biggest challenges facing our society, but also giving them the methods and tools we need to take action to solve them. At Occidental College, for example, professors from across the humanities will design courses for first-year students around a theme of social justice. This fall, the first theme will be “Health, Illness and Dignity” and students will be invited to participate in a project that addresses this issue in the local community. Co-Principal Investigators Kristi Upson-Saia and Alexandra Puerto said that by exposing students to a wide range of humanities teachings, they aim to develop social justice leaders who understand the power of humanistic approaches in the problems solving.

2. Awareness
According to recent survey data shared by Best Colleges, awareness of social justice is growing among college students. Yet not all students arrive on campus with a solid understanding of the struggles facing historically marginalized communities. By introducing social justice work into core courses for undergraduates, institutions can promote self-examination and amplify the voices of underrepresented groups. Institutions can also encourage students to connect on issues they are passionate about. At Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, interest in environmental justice and activism has united a group of early-career faculty members, who are currently developing interdisciplinary programs, projects, and programs for students from Sarah Lawrence and Bronx Community College. “We have discovered that the humanities can model an alternative to a life cut off from each other and our living environment by re-examining the complex relationships between humanity, animality, race, class, gender, sexuality and the natural world,” said project leaders Heather Cleary, Sarah Hamill and Eric Leveau.

3. Encourage experimentation
Liberal arts colleges are typically small, tight-knit communities where cross-disciplinary collaboration happens every day, making them an ideal place to experiment with new approaches to teaching and research, Cecire said. Much of the work that Mellon funds at liberal arts colleges is highly interdisciplinary, with faculty from different departments working together to incubate and pilot experimental approaches. “Mississippi Watershed: An Immersive Humanities Curriculum” is an example of Humanities for all time project that will test a very unusual approach to learning. Under the project – led by Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota and a network of other institutions – the Mississippi River will become a site of immersive learning with five centers dotted along the waterway.

4. Counting with history
Many of the social injustices faced by marginalized communities today are the result of deep historical oppression. Although textbooks can provide students with basic context, voices have been erased from the narrative, and telling the fullest story possible is an essential aspect of Humanities for all times initiative. At Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, faculty members plan a multi-pronged approach to help revitalize native and indigenous languages. The All Our Nations Revitalization Hub will build on the institution’s work to address its historic role in the oppression of Indigenous language and culture as a former federal Indian residential school.

5. Connect with place
Learning does not only take place on university campuses, but also in the communities surrounding the institutions. Engagement with local people and places is essential for students to understand their environment, where they fit in and how they might shape it for the better. At Bard College in upstate New York, the school’s American Studies curriculum will be redesigned with a Native American and Indigenous studies lens that will emphasize engagement with Munsee Indigenous communities and Mohican on the unceded lands of Bard College.

Macalester College’s Mississippi Watershed Project also prioritizes the significance of place. The project grew out of previous efforts to view the river as a “cultural and ecological corridor” leading from Minnesota to the Gulf Coast, said John Kim, associate professor and chair of Macalester College’s Department of Media and Cultural Studies. . “One thing I’ve learned working on the Mississippi River, ecologically and culturally, is that we’re all connected in ways that cover north and south, east and west. .”


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