What Should—and Can—the University Teach?

The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill is currently attempting to develop a substantially new “general education” curriculum.  GenEd, as it is known at Carolina, is the broad “liberal arts” part of a student’s college career; it is a set of requirements separate from the more specialized course of study that is the “major.”

Anyone even remotely connected to universities knows that changing the curriculum always insures lots of Sturm and Drang, gnashing of teeth, and ferocious denunciations.  Much of this is driven by self-interest; any change, necessarily, will benefit some people more than others.  At a time when students are abandoning the humanities (particularly) and the social sciences (to some extent) as “majors,” the health of those departments depends, more than in the past, on enrollment in their “GenEd” classes.  Thus, any curricular change that seems to funnel fewer students toward those classes is viewed as a threat.  Of course, an oppositional stance taken on that ground pushes the (presumably) primary responsibility of the university to serve the educational needs of its students to the back seat, displaced by internal turf battles.

But there is a legitimate, larger issue here—and that’s what I would like to address.  What does a student in 2019 need to know?  And how does our current understanding of how to answer that question relate to the “liberal arts” as traditionally understood?  At a time when respect for the liberal arts in the wider culture seems at an all-time low, how can their continued centrality to university education not only be protected, but (more importantly) justified or even expanded?

My sense is that practitioners of the liberal arts are having a hard time making the shift from a “coverage” model to one that focuses on “skills” or “capacities.”  Yes, all the proponents of the liberal arts can talk the talk about how they teach students to “think critically” and “to communicate effectively.”  So, all of us in the humanities (at least) have, to that extent, adopted skills talk—even where we fear that it turns our departments into training grounds for would-be administrators of the neoliberal world out there.  But, in our heart of hearts, many of us are really committed to the “content” of our classes, not to the skills that, as by-products, study of that content might transmit.

But, please, think of our poor students! The vast universe of knowledge that the modern research university has created means, as any conscientious scholar knows, that one can spend a lifetime studying Milton and his 17th century context without ever getting to the bottom.  Great work if you can get it.  And isn’t it wonderful that universities (and, by extension, our society) sees fit to fund someone to be a life-long Milton devotee?  But it is futile to think our undergrads, in two short years before they assume a major, are going to master Etruscan pottery, Yoruba mythology, EU politics, the demographics of drug addiction, the works of James Joyce, and the principles of relativity.  The standard way of approaching (ducking?) this conundrum has been “survey courses.”  The “if this is Tuesday, it must by John Donne” approach.

Any teacher who has ever read the set of exams written by students at the end of those survey classes knows what the research also tells us.  They are close to useless.  They are simply disorienting—and fly through the material at a speed that does not generate anything remotely like real comprehension.  The way people learn—and, again, the research is completely clear on this point—is by taking time with something, by getting down and dirty with the details, followed by synthesizing what is learned by doing something with it.  Active learning it is called—and, not to put too fine a point on it, faculty who despise it as some fashionable buzz-word are equivalent to climate change deniers.  They are resolutely, despite their claim to be scholars and researchers, refusing to credit the best research out there on how people learn.

Back to our poor student.  Not only has she been subjected to survey classes, but she has been pushed (by curricular requirements) to take a smorgasbord of them, with no effort to make the various dishes relate or talk to one another.  Each course (not to mention each department) is its own fiefdom, existing in splendid isolation from all the rest.  The end result: students have a smattering of ill-digested knowledge about a bunch of different things, with no sense of why they should know these things as opposed to other possible ones, and with no overarching sense of how this all fits together, or a clear sense of what their education has actually given them.  If we wanted to create confusion, if that was our intended outcome, we could hardly have done better.

The “content” approach in my view, then, leads to confusion for the students and tokenism in the curriculum.  We simply cannot deliver a meaningful encounter with the content of our multiple disciplines during GenEd. So the question becomes: what can we do that is meaningful in the GenEd curriculum?  After all, we could scrap GenEd altogether and do as the Brits do: just have students take courses in their chosen majors during their college years.  Like most American educators, I think the British model a bad mistake.  But that does mean I have to offer a coherent and compelling account of what GenEd can do—and the best way to insure it does what it aims for.

The answer, I believe, is to define what we want our students to be able to do as thinkers and writers.  Here’s a neat formula I stole from someone (unfortunately, I cannot remember my source).  We want a student in 2019 to 1) learn how to access information; 2) learn how to assess the information she has accessed; and 3) know how to use that information to solve specific problems and to make a presentation about it to various audiences in order to communicate various things to those audiences.  I take number 3 very expansively to include (crucially) understanding (through having some experience of) the fact that members of your audience come from very different backgrounds, with very different assumptions about what matters. Thus, effective communication relies heavily on being able (to adapt Kant’s formula) “empathize with the viewpoint of the other,” while effective problem solving relies on being able to work with others. Assessing information (#2 on my list) involves understanding that there are various methods of assessment/evaluation.  Judging the features of a text or a lab experiment in terms of its technical components and the success with which they have been deployed is different than judging its ethical implications.

I think we can, if careful and self-conscious, make significant progress toward achieving the three goals stated above during the first two years of college.  I think success requires that we de-fetishize content; that we design our classes to develop the identified skills; and that we re-design our classes to make sure we are achieving them.  Assessment will come in many different varieties, each geared to evaluating students’ performances of the competencies rather than to regurgitation of content knowledge. We should be asking students to “perform” their skills, which involves (partly) the presentation of knowledge acquired through reading, research and hands-on experience, in a variety of genres for different kinds of audiences.  The quality of their performances will be the first indication of whether or not we are being pedagogically successful.

I will confess real impatience with teacher/scholars who resist all “assessment” as a dirty word.  Somehow we are supposed to magically know that we are actually teaching our students something, when (in the old curriculum) all we really knew was that the students had checked off the requisite boxes, gotten a grade, and been passed on.  It is no secret that universities have neglected the arts and sciences of pedagogy over the years—and there is no excuse for it.  If we claim to be teaching our students, we need 1) to state clearly and precisely what it is we claim to be teaching them; 2) to do the work necessary to ascertain that we are actually succeeding; and 3) revise our methods when they are not getting the job done.

Necessarily, courses will still have “content”—and that content matters a lot!  The capacities will be taught through a semester-long engagement with some specific subject matter.  In my ideal university, the person we hire to teach medieval literature, or the history and beliefs of Buddhism, or astronomy, is someone who, in their heart of hearts, believes life is less worth living if you don’t know about their subject of expertise.  They convey that enthusiasm and conviction when they teach their classes—and gain a reputation on campus that attracts students because it is known that Professor X makes Subject Y come alive.  But Professor X also has to know, on another level, that the vast majority of her students are not going to make Subject Y their life work and that even a vaster majority of the human race will lead worthy lives knowing nothing whatsoever of Subject Y.  So we are asking our professor to also—and consciously—design her class to develop some specified capacity.  In other words, her class should model a way of thinking, and require students to put that model into practice.

The proposed new curriculum at Chapel Hill moves from the “coverage” model to one focused on skills or capacities.  I think that means we are moving from something we cannot possibly achieve to something we can, perhaps, do.  I also think the new curriculum has the distinct advantage of trying to specify those skills and capacities.  And it challenges our faculty to craft their classes with care in order to inculcate those capacities in our students.  It is a feature, not a bug, in my eyes that many of our classes will need to be modified.  The point of change is change.  Doing the same old same old is not an improvement—and I, for one, think the need for improvement is evident.

Is the new curriculum perfect?  Of course not.  We cannot know with any certainty exactly how it will play out.  The definition of the capacities and the most effective ways of transmitting them to students will have to be honed and reformed through the crucible of practice.  Any successful institution needs to fight calcification tooth and nail, continually revising itself at it moves along, with an eye firmly on the goals that motivate its practices. The tendency of institutions to stagnate, to do something because that’s the way it has always been done and how it currently distributes its resources and rewards, is all too familiar—and depressing. Change is upsetting and, as I said at the outset, some will benefit more than others from change.

In fact, I think the proposed curriculum protects the arts, humanities, and social sciences at a time when they are particularly vulnerable. I also think the liberal arts will suffer if they stick resolutely to old models that do not respond to larger cultural shifts.  We cannot resist or even speak to those shifts if we don’t find a way of meeting our students—who come to college now with a set of needs and objectives that represent their own response to new societal pressures—at least halfway.  We also must recognize that students will, inevitably (within the “elective” system that dates back to the 1880s) make their own decisions about what courses to take.  Thus we must articulate clear rationales for them to take the various courses that will be available within the GenEd curriculum.  What I like about the new curriculum is the way that it calls us to our task as educators, asking us to identify what we believe passionately our students need to learn, and placing the responsibility that our students get there in our hands.

One thought on “What Should—and Can—the University Teach?

  1. Thoughtful commentary. It is obvious that you have taken to heart “Kant’s” formula and have written a piece that even a “lay” person can understand. Extraordinarily encouraging to learn that some of our universities most esteemed faculty are not afraid of the dreaded “change,” if done with forethought and willingness to fine tune, indefinitely.

    Like

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