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Archive for February, 2009

future of higher ed

Is a liberal arts education useful?   I re-read Bok’s book, Our Underachieving Colleges, and have been looking at the latest updates on the LEAP project at AAC&U.  I see lots of consensus on how to  shape  curriculum and programming to educate our students, a liberal arts education that prepares citizens and responsible, thoughtful adults.  The list in George Kuh’s report is similar to Bok’s list: First Year Seminars, Common Intellectual Experiences, Learning Communities, Writing Intensive Courses, Collaborative Work, Learning Communities, Global Learning, Internships, Community-Based Learning and Capstone Courses.

We are doing all those things at UR, some would say.  And yet, I maintain we aren’t really doing most of them.  As Bok notes, we keep trying to fundamentally change higher education by tinkering with number and kinds of courses.  And yet, that doesn’t make a deep change.  It is not the “what”–it is the HOW.  For example: we have a first year program called Core which is a common intellectual experience.  The faculty spend much time deciding what great books all freshman should read.  But far fewer faculty consider what should happen in the classrooms themselves, how the students should engage with these texts and with each other. And I am not sure we who teach it  try to go out into the world with the students and make the real world connections.

Dickinson has found a really interesting way to bring many of these elements together in their first year program.  In this article, they report on the connections between the design of their first year program and certain student outcomes that go beyond traditional reading and writing skills.  They measured student mental health, levels of alcohol use and development as citizens and engaged thinkers. The content of this report is interesting, as is the method:

Working with Bringing Theory to Practice became a vehicle for rigorous assessment. We wanted to explicitly study the effects of student participation in our first-year engaged-learning initiatives to examine whether variously structured learning experiences would yield different impacts on student learning and engagement, mental health, alcohol use, and civic engagement over the short and long term.

As we phase in our new first year curriculum components, there is a great opportunity to do innovative assessment work like this, comparing control groups to those in the new curriculum.

There is also another opportunity here: to reach across not just departments, but also across the student life-academics divide.  I have heard academics complain for years that students don’t live the “life of the mind” outside of the classroom, but as academics we too often stop ourselves at the threshold of the classroom or office.  Our Sophomore Scholars in Residence Program is a fascinating way to begin to bridge the divide, and it has brought student-life professionals into working relationships with faculty.  Our new Roadmap program does that as well, bringing faculty into student lives before they even begin their first semester here with us, and continuing through all four years. You can read about both programs in Artes Liberales.

What I am getting at is that if we want to educate whole people, we as faculty may have to leave our comfort zones.  But the times call for action, for change.    Consider a place like Hampshire college, trying to think differently about education. President Ralph Hexter wrote about the connection he sees between how we educate in higher ed, and the citizens we turn out, pointing out that at the heart of the financial scandals were people “well educated” by America’s top universities. He frames the mission of higher education as

each student owning his or her learning and understanding the context and significance of that learning.

A great liberal arts education should allow students to reach back to the great thinkers of the past, to view the present with an educated eye ,  and to  imagine their own way into a new future.  Active learning, metacognition, problem-based learning, community-based learning, personal learning environments, learning communities…there are so many promising ways to think differently about learning and to bring the liberal arts to the citizens of the new millenium.  It makes me glad to be sending my children into higher education.  Now, about paying for it…

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