A Tale of Two Buildings—and a Cat

How dynamic spaces foster interaction and education.

By Amy Gutmann | In November, I spoke with the Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council about trends in higher education. The room was filled with some of the nation’s top business executives, who shared a strong belief in the need for college graduates who can analyze, evaluate, understand, and most importantly, think creatively. Many thoughtfully questioned whether our current system of higher education is the best way to achieve those goals. Being business people—and highly successful ones at that—they questioned ‘business as usual’ in higher education and especially wondered how greater efficiencies can be found in the process of educating young adults.

When the conversation turned to MOOCs—massive open online courses such as Coursera, in which Penn is a leading innovator—the question naturally arose: “If exceptional content and quality teaching can be delivered over the Internet, why go through the expense of bringing everyone together in the same location?” In other words, is the need for a college campus a thing of the past?

Even those of us who look back fondly at our years living and learning in a residential college setting should be willing to reconsider the current value of the experience we cherished in the face of new and different possibilities. The fundamental challenge to campus-based learning goes like this: If new technology permits our students to learn effectively from any location, then won’t any location suffice? Isn’t much of the time college students spend together in fact spent in doing everything but studying and learning?

A major problem with this line of reasoning is that it relies on an either/or choice: students are either learning or playing, and if we can reduce or remove the second part we will naturally increase the efficiency of the first. My experience leads me to just the opposite observation: our Penn students are fully engaged in broad and comprehensive learning experiences, the kind that can only occur when students and faculty live and work together in close proximity. Take for example the incredible journey of Dau Jok, who came to Penn via war-torn South Sudan. A superb student, gifted writer, and talented athlete, Dau desired to promote peace and educational opportunity in his home country. He combined his passions, and with the collaboration of several campus resources—including the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships, Kelly Writers House, Penn Athletics and men’s basketball coach Jerome Allen W’09, and Wharton student consulting—Dau realized his dream in the creation and ongoing efforts of the DutJok Youth Foundation.

Dau’s story is one powerful example of how Penn’s vibrant and compact urban campus is an enormous learning asset. Two buildings now under way—one opening in January and the other in the fall of 2016—underscore the power of proximity and importance of creating a vibrant in-person learning environment.

Recently, we celebrated the start of construction on a stunning New College House at the corner of Chestnut and 34th streets [“Gazetteer,” this issue]. The very first residence on our campus designed specifically for Penn’s distinctive college house system, the New College House will be intimate enough to create a strong community, while large enough to provide intellectual vibrancy and social diversity. The design locates major programmatic spaces—including a flexible dining venue, media center, seminar rooms, and music practice rooms—around a beautiful, sustainable central courtyard. The New College House will set a lasting standard for undergraduate life at Penn through the 21st century, thanks to the great generosity of the Lauder Foundation and Emeritus Trustee Stephen Heyman W’59 and his wife, Barbara.

Just a few blocks west, in the heart of campus at 36th Street and Locust Walk, the Arts, Research, and Culture House—or ARCH—has reopened its doors following a spectacular renovation and restoration. Some Penn alumni will remember this beautiful 1920s Gothic Revival building as the Christian Association.

Revitalizing the ARCH has been a key priority. It holds a special place as one of the most visible homes of undergraduate cultural and research life at Penn. A welcoming central hub for all students to meet and share ideas, the ARCH’s design is also one of the most recognizable and beautiful to grace Locust Walk. It is home to three vibrant cultural centers: La Casa Latina, Makuu, and the Pan-Asian American Community House. The ARCH is also the locus of undergraduate research through CURF, the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships, as well as home base for the Benjamin Franklin Scholars and University Scholars. Thanks to a generous anonymous gift, the new ARCH further distinguishes Penn as a national leader in promoting cross-cultural collaboration and undergraduate research.

These two buildings tell the story of how our students are learning today. Ultimately, the restoration of the ARCH and the creation of the New College House are therefore far more than a tale of two buildings. They are also the story of a cat. But not just any cat—Schrödinger’s Cat, the imagined subject of one of the most famous thought-experiments of the 20th century.

Recall that in the early rift between classical physics and the “upstart” new theory of quantum physics, skeptics questioned how, in the quantum world, things could exist in two seemingly irreconcilable states simultaneously. To demonstrate the absurdity of this idea, Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger proposed sealing a radioactive substance with a precise fifty-fifty chance of decay in a chamber with a trigger and a cat. If the substance decayed, the trigger would euthanize the cat. Quantum theory suggests that if no intelligent observer looked in the chamber, the radioactive material would be simultaneously half decayed and half not-decayed—and so by extension, the cat would be simultaneously half dead and half alive. Only when we look in the chamber, thereby measuring the state of the radioactive material, does it decide which state it is in, and whether our fictional cat is alive or dead.

Schrödinger described his thought experiment as “ridiculous.” Purportedly, later in life, he remarked that he wished he had never met that cat. But his famous scenario endures not so much because of what it teaches us about quantum theory, but rather, what it tells us about the limitations of our own modes of thinking. Nearly all of us are Newtonian thinkers: as in classical physics, we understand the world directly as we experience it. A radioactive material is either decayed or not decayed; a cat is dead or alive; students are either in the classroom or library learning, or they are off doing something else.

In matters of higher education, though, it behooves us to become Planckian thinkers, as in Max Planck, the originator of quantum theory. Quantum thinking acknowledges that learning is significantly discontinuous, rather than incremental. We often learn in leaps. Just as we cannot know the precise position and velocity of an electron simultaneously, so too we must abandon the common assumption that our students’ learning mode is either on or off—that they are either formally learning, or doing something else entirely. At a place like Penn (true, there is no other place just like Penn), students experience a superposition of states in which significant learning and doing something else can, and do, exist simultaneously. This is what these buildings will promote so well: they embrace a lived life full of many sometimes seemingly irreconcilable activities and foster a continuum of learning that enhances, extends, and indeed envelops ordinary classroom hours.

We are motivated—and at Penn, I would go so far as to say we are inspired—by learning together with others, which suggests why online learning, for all its merits, has been shown to be most effective when combined or augmented with in-person, in-classroom time. Just as Penn is a world leader in bridging academic disciplines, so today we are at the vanguard in erasing boundaries between the classroom, the dorm room, and active engagement online and off. The New College House and the ARCH bridge physical and institutional divides. These two building projects will maximize student life and learning at Penn in the years to come—providing dynamic spaces and resources that foster spontaneous interaction and invaluable educational and cultural communities beyond the classroom.

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    1 Response

    1. Jack Sun

      What a brilliant argument! I believe the dynamic and vibrant in-person learning and interaction experienced by the particants in the close proximity is rather beyond being quantified. Given the splendid memory and life experience I had at colleges, I would never exchange my on campus learning experience with online courses. I cannot agree with you more that Penn is well positioned to foster spontaneous interaction and invaluable educational and cultural communities beyond the classroom!

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