Liberal Arts Colleges Face Identity Crisis

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Photo: Tommy O’Laughlin ’13

We are all familiar with popular media reports that question the value of a liberal arts education. Political leaders such as Florida Governor Rick Scott, have led the public discourse with statements like: “Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.” And “I want money to go to degrees where people can get jobs in this state.” Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s attempts to fundamentally change the mission of the Wisconsin university system to create a technical training model of higher education to focus on jobs fulfillment evidence this perspective. President Obama offered a dismissive comment about the liberal arts when he said: “folks can make a lot more potentially with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.” These types of statements indicate of the current rhetorical mood for liberal arts education.

This public debate has raised questions about the future of liberal arts colleges. Granted, there have been spirited defenses of the liberal arts, such as Fareed Zakaria’s In Defense of a Liberal Education. Additionally, national associations have initiatives aimed at analyzing the effectiveness of a liberal education and disseminating accurate information about liberal arts education, such as The American Association of Colleges and Universities’ LEAP (Liberal Education and America’s Promise), the Council of Independent Colleges’ Securing America’s Future: The Power of Liberal Arts Education, and the work of the Annapolis Group of Colleges. More locally, CSB/SJU held a significant national conference in July, 2016, “Liberal Arts Illuminate: Lighting the Path Forward,” involving national leaders to discuss the importance of the liberal arts.

The definition of a liberal arts education has changed and adapted over time. The traditional definition of the liberal arts was based on particular disciplines – historically they included the trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy). Of course the particular disciplines that were labeled as liberal arts have evolved over time to adapt to a changing and more complex world.

Today, a liberal arts college has come to mean a small residential college that offers most of its instruction in traditional liberal arts programs. However, the traditional focus on particular disciplines really doesn’t capture what a liberal arts college is.

Georgia Nugent, former president of Kenyon College observed what defines a liberal arts college, “The last several decades have seen some movement away from an epistemological framework based on academic disciplines toward one shaped along more fluid lines of inquiry.” This shift is key, because it suggests that the overall educational environment – curriculum, teaching methods, faculty-student interaction, and co-curricular involvement are all part of what makes a liberal arts education.

The Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts at Wabash College, a nationally recognized leader in liberal arts education, conducted a major longitudinal study comparing learning outcomes between liberal arts colleges, research universities, and regional institutions. The study found that liberal arts college students “realized significant advantages” in both critical thinking skills and cognitive development. The report suggested “a significant part of the cognitive impact of liberal arts colleges may be exerted by their distinctive instructional and learning environments.” Additionally, the AAC&U’s LEAP project, a national initiative on the importance of a twenty-first-century liberal education, has identified through extensive research the essential outcomes of a liberal education and the educational practices that have the highest impact – such as, first-year experiences, writing-intensive courses, collaborative assignments and projects, undergraduate research, diversity and global learning, service learning, internships, and capstone courses and projects.

CSB/SJU is responding to these national trends by developing an innovative curriculum that is intentional in incorporating high-impact practices and a curriculum that intentionally achieves student learning outcomes that are consistent with our mission and that research shows to be essential for the 21st century workforce and citizenship. A faculty committee was charged with evaluating the current curriculum and making recommendations for curricular revisions. The committee produced an extensive report last year and the Faculty Senate approved new learning outcomes for the common curriculum (see reports here). We are now at the stage where three teams of faculty have developed curricular models for the faculty to consider. I am excited at the possibilities because all of these models are innovative and integrative. More importantly, these models are focused on student learning and integrate best practices into our educational model. Additionally, the curricular change will integrate a first year experience that is based on best practices to assist students in their academic and social success in college.

CSB/SJU have a history of offering an excellent liberal arts education. Students are well served by the current curriculum, but the revisions that we will make will advance our liberal arts education to even greater levels of excellence and will continue to focus on what is best for our students.

By |November 2nd, 2016|Categories: Uncategorized||0 Comments

Challenges for Liberal Arts Colleges

Photo: Alexus Jungles '19

Photo: Alexus Jungles ’19

This past summer, CSB/SJU hosted the Liberal Arts Illuminated Conference, which was attended by over 200 participants from across the country. The sessions, led by leaders in higher education, examined the challenges that face liberal arts institutions. I observed four challenges that were discussed across the sessions of the conference: identity, accessibility, accountability, and affordability.

The identity issue is defining what a liberal arts education is. The historic definition of the liberal arts was based on particular disciplines — the trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy). Of course the particular disciplines labeled as liberal arts have evolved over time to adapt to a changing and more complex world. But is a disciplinary definition an appropriate approach? How might the total experience of our students be described? What are the advantages of an education offered by “liberal arts” institutions? What are the high impact practices that define liberal arts colleges?

Accessibility for students to the educational opportunities of a liberal arts institution is a significant challenge. We need to be open to providing an inclusive and welcoming environment for all students, regardless of their race, ethnicity, socio-economic background, sexual orientation, or physical or emotional challenges. How does a college provide access to entrance? How does the institution provide access to educational opportunities once students are enrolled? How does the institution provide an inclusive atmosphere for all students and staff?

All of higher education is being challenged to be accountable for demonstrating that they are achieving the results they claim. Accountability is necessary not only to demonstrate achievement, but also to responsibly and continuously improve our education. What are the high impact practices for higher education? Do the students demonstrate that they are achieving the claimed outcomes? Are the stated outcomes appropriate and sufficient?

Affordability has received significant media coverage. A college education is a significant investment for families and students. What is the value of a liberal arts education? Why does college cost so much? Why have tuition increases outpaced inflation? How are colleges containing costs?

An outstanding resource to explain the complexities of the issues facing higher education is Breakpoint: The Changing Marketplace for Higher Education (Johns Hopkins University Press) by CSB/SJU vice president for planning and public affairs, Jon McGee.

Because we are not immune to these trends, CSB and SJU will confront these challenges. I will be addressing each of these issues in this blog in the coming weeks, explaining the national trends and discussing how CSB/SJU are addressing each.

By |September 15th, 2016|Categories: Uncategorized||0 Comments

What is a Benedictine Liberal Arts Education?

Photo: Tommy O'Laughlin '13

Photo: Tommy O’Laughlin ’13

I am often asked what is a Benedictine liberal arts education? Probably the best way to explain the CSB/SJU approach to education is to consider the primary ways people think about education. There seem to be two metaphors that define education.

The dominant metaphor used for education is the container, which assumes that students are empty containers and professors pour knowledge into their empty heads. It is an appealing metaphor, because it’s easy and passive.  This perspective assumes that someone else is responsible for a student’s education. Not only does the container metaphor construct a passive approach to education, it is dehumanizing to students. We did not admit any empty heads.

Our Benedictine values recognize the dignity of each human person.  We believe that each student has a spark within. The Benedictine liberal arts education is not filling empty containers; rather our process of education is about helping students kindle their own sparks. The fire metaphor constructs an active view of education, where each student is responsible for discovering her/his own spark and kindling her/his own flame.

Photo: Nicole Pederson '17

Photo: Nicole Pederson ’17

This is a community effort — faculty, staff, coach, siblings, peers, and parents guide students toward kindling to help them stoke their flames. We encourage and demonstrate how to tender their flames once they set the spark ablaze.  Students might catch fire in a particular class, or a project. It could be on a study abroad, internship, or service learning project. It could be a sport, club, volunteer opportunity, or student employment. Students discover what kindling will fire them up. But we cannot kindle their spark for them. They will not be doing this alone, but s/he must do it her/himself.

In their search for kindling, students will discover that some kindling will light their fire, while other kindling doesn’t ignite them.  They will experiment with a variety of kindling – a variety of approaches and perspectives. As students stoke their flames, some will get burned, but we are there as a community to help each other continue to kindle those flames.

Once our students set their sparks aflame, they do not hide it. Our students are engaged learners – sharing their research at undergraduate research conferences all around the country, participating in civic engagement in our community and in our world, using their spark to ignite flames all around us to make this a better, more enlightened world.

There is another significant difference between the container metaphor and the fire metaphor.  You only need to fill up an empty container once, but you must keep stoking a fire or it will extinguish.  We will have to provide fuel for the flames for the rest of our lives.  We are committed to life-long learning.

Our students are accepted to CSB/SJU because we recognized a unique spark within each of them. We believe they have the capacity to kindle their own sparks and that they will take responsibility to keep the fire burning.  CSB/SJU are great places to discover and kindle one’s spark.  I have no doubt that our students’ sparks will catch fire and illuminate the world around them.

By |September 1st, 2016|Categories: Uncategorized||0 Comments