From the Chair

As a member of the Board of Directors since 2014 and as Chair for the past two years, I have been very proud as the current Teagle-funded programs have evolved to meet the needs of American society and American higher education. We have been adapting our grantmaking to respond to the disruptions of the global pandemic and the epidemic of domestic strife. The need for broader access to a high-quality liberal arts education has never been more vital, and is fundamental to all we do at the Teagle Foundation.
Throughout my career in higher education, science, and philanthropy, I have become increasingly grateful for the liberal arts college I attended, for its purposeful curriculum (though we chafed then at many of the requirements) and for its dedicated faculty attuned to challenging us and supporting our learning. Teagle initiatives have consistently reinforced the enduring values that flow from “liberal education.” These values encompass subject-matter knowledge that is deeply connected to open-minded inquiry in all forms of human endeavor.
I’d like to offer a quotation from a gifted man to make the point about the need for and benefits of open-minded inquiry. His name was Jacob Bronowski, the Polish-British mathematician, philosopher, chess player, literary critic, and poet who was able to make technical and creative contributions across many fields as well as to communicate the ideas broadly and effectively. “Ask an impertinent question,” he wrote, “and you are on the way to a pertinent answer.” 
As a senior academic administrator, I tacked these words on a bulletin board next to my desk for repeated reflection about how to move along efforts to deepen student learning and how to advance complex processes requiring significant change.
Bronowski was speaking of the “essence of science” but this focus on asking an “impertinent question” goes way beyond science -- into human inquiry of all kinds. While “impertinent” can have negative connotations, this tongue-in-cheek usage by Bronowski brings up the value he saw for out-of-the-box ideas, for a respectful contrariness, for an intentional “smart” or sometimes even a “smart alecky” provocation as a means to stimulate new ideas, new truths, new understanding. 
Embedded in liberal education and the programs that Teagle supports are the principles of guided questioning, led by faculty who can model and support the development of ever-more advanced skills of inquiry in today’s students. Such classrooms are where students sharpen their abilities of argumentation and listening about the big ideas that have engaged people around the world and across time, including trust and deceit, altruism and betrayal, hope and fear. “Impertinent questions” are also useful in the vigorous contemporary debates, from the origins of the Dead Sea Scrolls to the promise and peril of unfettered AI.  And speaking of AI, another quote from Bronowski applies: “Knowledge is an unending adventure at the edge of uncertainty.”  Here he was in dialogue with those in the physical sciences working on the uncertainty principle of Heisenberg, and advancing the idea that the uncertainty principle should actually be called the principle of tolerance. Were he alive now he would certainly have prescient things to say about AI and the pressing issues of today. We must prepare our students, and faculty, for lives of vastly more uncertainty…and tolerance.

It is of course a tricky balance, especially in today’s contentious times, to nurture the asking of “impertinent questions,” and to wrestle with the fruits of these discussions in meaningful and productive ways. That is why Teagle grants supporting institutional efforts to expand humanistic inquiry also contain elements that equip the faculty to incorporate this guided questioning approach into their classes. That is why I am such a big supporter of Teagle’s series “How and Why I Teach This Text” where recent interactive webinars, aimed primarily at current faculty in our funded programs but open to all, have delved into the teaching of texts such as Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address, George Orwell’s 1984, Plato and James Baldwin together, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. I encourage you to view these programs and many others, whether you have read these influential texts in college – or want to encounter them now with a fine teacher.
What continues to concern us and our grantees are the emerging data on the impact of the pandemic on student learning. Reading and math scores have taken big hits, with the biggest negative change in underserved schools.  There is time urgency about how to regain lost learning in these basic skills courses, as there is likely to be a long tail as students pass through to upper grades and approach graduation. And losses with respect to civic education are worrisome as the 2024 election cycle heats up and major constitutional questions arise. The Washington Post published a report in May 2023 by Shawn Healy and Louise DubĂ© that looks at the issue of civics education, based on data from National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). They lead with this conclusion: “The release of [NAEP data] in civics confirmed what we already know: The nation is failing to prioritize teaching civics.” But they also stress that much is now known about how civics can be taught effectively, including through the use of primary source materials, role-playing, and debates or panel discussions. These proven teaching strategies for eighth-grade civic students, relying on primary sources and discussion-based learning, are the hallmarks of Teagle-supported programs across our grantmaking. Broader dissemination and adoption of these well-designed and effective interventions are urgently needed.
Our grantmaking in the four major initiatives—Cornerstone: Learning for Living, Knowledge for Freedom, Transfer Pathways to the Liberal Arts, and Education for American Civic Life—supports institutional programs from across the country, and of varying sizes, organizational structure, and sector. We foster various sorts of inter-institutional collaborations that capitalize on this diversity of institutional type and location. And importantly we expect to partner with the grantee institution on cost rather than pay the whole bill, a collaboration we believe is critical for the transition of programs to full institutionalization into the distinctive context of each college or university.
As Andrew Delbanco notes in his President’s Report, “What all these programs have in common is a determination to make the classroom a civil and purposeful community.” We start a new academic year committed to renewing our efforts and doing our very best to maximize the impacts of our grantmaking for the betterment of American society and American higher education.
--Elizabeth S. Boylan, Chair