Sramana Mitra: Interesting. What are your thoughts about liberal arts colleges? I went to a liberal arts college as well. I went to Smith College. About five years ago, Smith started this big investment on a new engineering building. It was very plush. They invited me to speak at the opening. It was clear that the college was going through a lot of soul-searching like most other liberal arts colleges. What is the future of liberal arts education?
Karen Francis: I have a grand vision for what a liberal arts college experience could be. I say those words very precisely. Just because technology is enabling things to open up, doesn’t mean that the college campus can’t do that. I actually think that the real opportunity here is to look at places like Smith and Dartmouth and say, “You go there, but you’re not bound by the boundaries of the geography or the professors who choose to teach there for what you’re going to learn and experience.” That place becomes a place of community and peer-to-peer, mentorship, and experiential learning that is enhanced by the caliber of your classmates, not just necessarily how great your professor is. It becomes a teaching environment utilizing faculty on the ground, experts, long distance, and all technologies to enable the actual experience to be the broadening thing – not just the topics that you take.
Sramana Mitra: Since you’re interested in the subject, I’ll share with you. I think that liberal arts colleges should make two things compulsory to graduate. People should learn how to program. They don’t need to major in Computer Science. They just need to learn to program. Some colleges have language requirements. Programming is important because technology today is so central to society. Breaking the fear of technology and actually giving the tools and just learning one programming language actually gives you a feel for that. That should be a requirement.
Second, I think entrepreneurship should be a requirement. Let’s say you major in Philosophy. If you have these tools under your belt, they get demystified early on in your life and they liberate you. A friend of mine at Stanford said, liberal arts were supposed to be the arts that liberate. Today, technology and entrepreneurship are the arts that liberate. If you were to major in Philosophy and have technology and entrepreneurship under your belt, you will look at what you do very differently than you would look at it without those tools. That’s my vision for how a liberal arts college should be developed.
Karen Francis: I will take that and expand it slightly on both topics. Maybe this is already included in your definition but also understanding how the Internet really works. For example, how many students are finding their reference materials from all over the place and they don’t really understand that it may be a paid ad. There’s an intricacy to what truly pure content on the Internet is and what is not. I think it’s important for them to be able to discern that difference.
Sramana Mitra: Some sort of technology literacy.
Karen Francis: Not just as a user because the user gets confused sometimes. Being able to see behind the curtain of how that all works. The entrepreneurship thing, I would agree. I want to make sure to expand the definition of entrepreneurship. My definition is people who are not constrained by what is, but understand what can be.
Sramana Mitra: And building things.
Karen Francis: Build things. I worked at General Motors. It was a huge job – $8 million and a lot of people. People go to work every day and don’t think that they’re entrepreneurs. The reality is the people who are most successful think like an entrepreneur in that bigger environment. I think that if you expand the definition for people in college, the gift of entrepreneurial thinking is to allow you to imagine what’s possible. In many ways, it’s what we all did when we were five. We all thought everything was possible. As we got older, people start telling you it’s not.
Sramana Mitra: But also in a pragmatic way – possible but with also the understanding of how to put one foot before the other and build something from nothing. Both having the confidence as well as some of the skill and tools.
Karen Francis: Being able to do it in whatever setting, you find yourself.