Curriculum Crashing!

Six weeks ago my colleagues circulated a Newsweek article titled “The 13 Most Useless Majors, From Philosophy to Journalism.” While responses (mostly from faculty in humanities fields) jokingly sized up the respective disciplines, the timing could not have been more serious. Public scrutiny of higher education has escalated significantly the past few years due to rising tuition costs, high student debt, and dim job prospects. Students and their parents find the promises of a liberal arts education elusive and have shifted their focus to “useful” (i.e. job specific) degree programs.

Faculty of traditional liberal arts fields face many challenges as institutions of higher education adapt to this mindset. Idealism will not trump practicality in this climate as more tangible results for the financial transaction of college are expected. Campus initiatives to sell meaningful educational experiences rooted in the liberal arts will leave fields that operate in the silo behind. The same month Newsweek published its rankings, educational faculty, staff, and administrators convened at Lafayette College for a conference on the “Future of the Liberal Arts College in America and its Leadership Role in Education around the World” to discuss interdisciplinary strategies. Ignoring the reality of this reorganization of the curriculum may have significant consequences if one does not participate in the discussion.

These challenges also present tremendous opportunities. Faculty cannot sell the relevance of liberal arts fields because of any traditional ties to Europe’s earliest universities; therefore, we need to assume leadership in defining what liberal arts majors offer to twenty-first century concerns. Faculty in English, Philosophy, Music, and other fields called into question, should be the movers and shakers and model what we teach. Statements like “students will appreciate my course later in life,” “this is how I was taught,” and “this is the content set by the department chair” are the sign of complacency. The fact that students do not buy into these comments is a good thing.

I am guilty of designing and teaching my courses in the manner I was taught not too long ago, a survey of discipline content. Indeed I learned a lot from my professors and developed a lasting interest in the fields of music history and music theory. These experiences positively impacted my development. But I didn’t have Google, YouTube, Facebook, a cell phone, and wireless internet service. Receiving new information from my classes and the campus library was something special. Hyper-connectivity has killed the content-focused course–perhaps for the better–and proponents of “engaged learning” and new educational technology recognize this. I’ve explored these new approaches and am convinced that they offer an impactful experience when guided by the goals of a liberal arts education–the development of morals, character, and skills in critical thinking, communication, and persuasion. Discipline content should serve these goals rather than the other way around.

It’s time to crash the curriculum! The student question I used to dread, “why do we need to know this?”, is now my inspiration. There are a few considerations before barging in. For one, graduate schools, accreditation committees, and certification boards will expect students in my courses to cover the content and demonstrate competencies in several areas. Second, some of my courses meet college-wide degree requirements with clearly defined outcomes. Third, my excitement over new technology and engaged learning activities sometimes outpaces the time I have to troubleshoot and develop a successful delivery. Heeding these standards will keep me honest so that the quest for innovation does not distract from the goal of actual learning.

My hope is that active blogging will encourage me to undo old habits and take meaningful risks as higher education continues to evolve. I invite others to crash the curriculum with me. Let’s breathe new life into our immensely useful fields!

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