Five Ways Mellon and Liberal Arts Colleges are Driving Social Change

winter campus scene with statue and two students in foreground Fort Lewis College has received support to pursue a multi-pronged approach to revitalizing Native and Indigenous languages. Photo courtesy of Fort Lewis College.

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

To tackle the most complex issues facing our society, future-change makers must develop excellent communication skills, learn how to interpret data, be conscious of important historical context, and have an insatiable drive to make the world a better place.

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

Encouraging students to become informed and engaged in their communities is an essential aspect of Mellon’s latest initiative, Humanities for All Times. Through this program, liberal arts colleges will develop curricula that are centered on social justice and will appeal to people from a wide range of backgrounds who want to affect change.

“Part of why we want to attract a diversity of students to the humanities is because all scholars bring their own histories, lived experiences, and cultural knowledge to their work,” says Maria Sachiko Cecire, a program officer with the Higher Learning program at Mellon.

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

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

student tutoring peersOccidental College’s core curricula for incoming students will include courses based around social justice themes such as health and dignity. Photo courtesy of Occidental College.

1.       Reshaping Curricula
Through its Humanities for All Times initiative, Mellon recently awarded over $16.1 million in grant funding to 12 liberal arts colleges to develop curricula that prioritize social justice. This means not only informing students about some of the biggest challenges facing our society but also equipping students with the methods and tools we need to take steps to solve them. At Occidental College, for example, faculty from across the humanities will develop courses for first-year students based around a social justice theme. This fall, the first theme will be “Health, Illness, and Dignity,” and students will be asked 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 teaching, they aim to produce social justice leaders who understand the power of humanistic approaches in problem-solving.

2.       Raising Awareness
According to recent survey data shared by Best Colleges, awareness of social justice is increasing among students. Still, not all students walk onto campus with a strong understanding of the struggles faced by historically marginalized communities. By introducing social justice work into core classes for undergraduates, institutions can promote self-examination and amplify voices from underrepresented groups. Institutions can also encourage students to connect over issues that 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 now developing interdisciplinary curricula, projects, and programming for students from Sarah Lawrence and Bronx Community College. “We’ve found that the humanities can model an alternative to a life cut off from each other and from our living environment by re-examining the complex relationships between humanity, animality, race, class, gender, sexuality, and the natural world,” said Heather Cleary, Sarah Hamill, and Eric Leveau, the leaders of the project.

3.       Encouraging Experimentation
Liberal arts colleges are typically small, tight-knit communities where interdisciplinary collaboration takes place every day, making them a great place to experiment with new approaches to teaching and research, said Cecire. 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 a Humanities for All Times project which will test a highly unusual approach to learning. As part of the project—led by Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota and a network of other institutions—the Mississippi River will become an immersive learning site with five hubs dotted along the length of the waterway.

4.       Reckoning with History
Many of the social injustices facing marginalized communities today result from deep historical oppression. While textbooks might provide students with basic context, voices have been erased from the narrative, and telling the fullest possible story is an essential aspect of the Humanities for All Times initiative. At Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, faculty members are planning a multi-pronged approach to help revitalize Native and Indigenous languages. The “All Our Nations Revitalization Hub” will build on work done by the institution to address its historical role in oppressing Native language and culture as a former federal Indian boarding school. 

5.       Connecting with Place
Learning doesn’t just happen on college campuses but also throughout institutions’ surrounding communities. Engagement with local people and places is essential for students to understand their environment, where they fit in it, and how they might shape it for the better. At Bard College in upstate New York, the institution’s American Studies curriculum will be redesigned through a Native American and Indigenous Studies lens that will emphasize engagement with the Native Munsee and Mohican communities on whose unceded land Bard College stands. 

Macalester College’s Mississippi watershed project also prioritizes the importance of place. The project grew out of previous efforts to think of the river as a “cultural and ecological corridor” leading from Minnesota to the Gulf Coast, said John Kim, associate professor and chair of the Media and Cultural Studies department at Macalester College. “One thing that I’ve learned working on the Mississippi River, ecologically and culturally speaking, is that we’re all connected in ways that span the North and the South, the East and the West.”