Decade Ahead
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Decade Ahead

Let artists help us imagine a better future

A conversation with Mariko Silver (Apr 16, 2021)

By John Mitchell and Maxwell Bigman ()

“We are at a point of societal reckoning,” says Mariko Silver, President and CEO of the Henry Luce Foundation. Referring to structural factors that advantage some segments of the population and disadvantage others, Mariko continues, “many structures don’t serve us [as a society] even if some [of us] are successful in them.” During the pandemic, the Luce Foundation first helped provide essential support and services. “We decided to use the networks we already have to …reach communities in ways that did not put a burden on them,” Mariko says. For example, Luce funded “divinity schools and seminaries providing immediate community support” and gave “a grant to Rutgers focusing on members of the community that are unsheltered.” Acting on her deep commitment to equity, Silver and the Luce Foundation also decided to “support artists to enable them to do work that imagines alternative futures… This year is a window into thinking about all sorts of futures.”

Mariko Silver

Mariko Silver took over as head of the Luce Foundation in 2020, after serving as president of Bennington College from 2013 to 2019. Earlier in her career, she worked at Columbia University, then moved to Arizona State University as Director of Strategic Projects when Michael Crow became president. In subsequent roles she served in the Arizona state government, and led the Office of International Affairs at the US Department of Homeland Security. Lively and athletic, Mariko has been a long-time advocate for the arts, telling us that the most influential classes she took at one point in life were dance.

“This year is a window into thinking about all sorts of futures.”

Reflecting on her time as a college president, Mariko suggests that “higher education is a system of chutes and ladders, with many more chutes than ladders.” Like the old board game some of us played as children, a student needs to climb one ladder and then another and then another to come out with a meaningful degree. There are many ways to slip back, with chutes for lack of privilege or changes in life circumstances. Advocating change, Mariko says, “we need a circulatory system more than we need the chutes and ladders.” That “circulatory system” might let students move more freely in and out of institutions, giving capable students more than one chance to make academic programs and flourish. Continuing her analysis, Mariko suggests we “need to look at where we are as an overall society: we devalue access to education and higher education in particular. Why? What is it we really want to get out of tertiary education?” Stressing the ways the pandemic may force us to reimagine and recreate education, she emphasizes that “Now would be a good time to examine underlying assumptions. What would a different kind of connectivity and circulation among institutions look like?”

What should the future of education emphasize, we ask. True to her experience as a college president, “There are elements of the Bennington education that should be the future of education: individual focus, agency, creativity, skill to think around a problem,” she answers. “Thinking is a creative process” and for Mariko, expanding on Bennington’s model creates an educational experience that would benefit many more students, including at the K-12 level. Moreover, Mariko challenges us to think about the roles of universities in society. “What are the different parts of what the universities provide, what are all of the different kinds of societal functions and networks to other institutions, what are the purposes that we want to articulate around them. Are they compatible or not?” In realizing her vision of a circulatory system, Mariko wonders what a “shared dynamic infrastructure” might look like, where everyone in the network talks to everyone else. Mariko’s view for institutions of learning is clear: “We’re all in it together”

Our conversation moves back to art and artists as we discuss how a new higher education system might look and how the projects Luce funded can support that vision. Why so much interest in the imagination, we ask? “Normal was not so good for many people, so why would we want to get back to normal?,” she responds. We discuss past creative work that has identified dystopian futures, like Orwell’s 1984, and the need now for the opposite — compelling visions of the future that are better than the present. Mariko emphasizes how art challenges us: “More often art makes you think, oh I never thought of that in that way.” A big fan of Sci Fi, Silver illustrates how those books create whole worlds with completely different societal configurations.

“As a society, we undervalue imagination and imaginative capacity”

Mariko sees an opportunity to expand our societal imaginative capacity and accepts that it’s “the job of foundations to do that.” Expanding on her core belief, she explains: “As a society, we undervalue imagination and imaginative capacity and tend to think transactionally about it. Everyone has imagination, some people have a practiced imaginative capacity and or an inherent ability to see things from a different angle that I think we undervalue as a society and we undervalue it economically in terms of artist pay and so forth but also as a societal infrastructure.” Greater imagination can push people to think about improvements in institutions and conventions that don’t serve us. “By not serving those of the greatest need, [our recent past is] not serving any of us as a type of societal infrastructure.”



The Decade Ahead project presents observations, case studies, reports, and commentary on forces and events that are shaping the next decade of education

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