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Alumni News — Fall 2004

Learning to Learn — Rethinking Curricula

The late Clark Kerr, president of the University of California, coined the term "multiversity" to characterize the varieties of work done in modern research universities. He wanted to link research to teaching and to make the ivory tower (i.e., the university conceived as a protective home for research or scholarship) a force in shaping the surrounding economy. More recently, Amy Gutmann, the incoming president at Penn, has discussed the modern university's function as ivory tower, community of learning, and what she calls service station. Both of these scholars and others have sought to balance these multiple interests and activities by means of sound planning—an act of definition by which the university disciplines its work and commitments.

Faculty members here are balancing competing values as they revise curricula to ensure that students actually master the kinds and range of learning that our degree attests and also that our requirements open up options rather than restrict them. A decade ago, the Boyer Commission began this round of curriculum revision by criticizing instruction in critical fields, including mathematics, the sciences, and foreign languages. Similarly, the Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology (ABET) called for changes in the specialized curricula that student engineers pursue. The Boyer Commission summarizes the need for curriculum reform: "Many students graduate having accumulated whatever number of courses is required, but still lacking a coherent body of knowledge or any inkling as to how one sort of information might relate to others. And all too often they graduate without knowing how to think logically, write clearly, or speak coherently."

Harvard's new curriculum study takes issue with one prevailing notion in that it values content or substance above what is sometimes called "learning to learn," and asserts the necessity of "our belief in the centrality of a liberal education for our students." The debate at Harvard is more complex than this one statement might suggest. The goal there is not to cease teaching how to learn, but rather to build deeper and broader substance into the introductory courses in which students in fact do learn to learn. This goal exists here also.

This ideal makes especially good sense here because of Mr. Jefferson's determination that undergraduate education not be narrowly specialized, and instead that students master the broad range of subjects essential to individual freedom and the well-being of the republic. Most of us, faculty and alumni and families, learn early the value of serious competency in a broad range of subjects. Premature specialization and academic fads rarely find support here. Yet the larger issues in the national debate inform the work our deans and faculty leaders are doing to sustain and strengthen the arts and sciences tradition.

The College is the necessary center for this work, and Dean Ayers is the leader. (The undergraduate professional schools—Engineering, Nursing, and so on—conform to national norms in their major programs, but generally build their lower divisions on College offerings.) A sample of current work: a proposal for a first-year interdisciplinary seminar offered jointly by faculty from different departments as a means to teach the connections between different kinds of intellectual inquiry. Without courses of this kind, new kinds of learning emerging from the digital revolution, the changing world economy, or indeed efforts to make our national culture inclusive will mean little to students.

The national discussion inevitably draws attention to math and science. The National Science Board warned recently that the United States faces a severe shortage of scientists, a situation that would "threaten the economic welfare and security of our country." Here, this issue involves how required courses (in math and science especially) prepare second-year students to choose majors. Students who avoid math lose the option of majoring in physics or astronomy, just as surely as students who avoid foreign languages miss out on fields such as international trade and politics.

In truth, by graduation time, all students ought to be as well educated in math and science as they are in the humanities and social sciences. The College Board's Advanced Placement program and the International Baccalaureate programs in high schools can help. Many of our students enroll with high enough AP/IB scores to place out of the first-year requirements. That is, they come to us with excellent math credentials, and then they do not take additional math. Consequently, one option is to adopt a rule that already exists in our strongest competitors: Require incoming students to take at least one additional course above the level of their AP/IB credits in the required areas as a means to assure depth and breadth of knowledge; allow transcript credit for the hours associated with AP/IB scores only when this additional course is passed successfully.

These are just a few of the issues. Foreign study, better advising, more systematic consideration of ethics in courses, and personal and community health turn up in virtually all of the proposals now in progress. Each issue deserves to be addressed substantively within the curriculum. All relate to Jefferson's conception of education for free people in a republic.

The Boyer Commission called for "radical reconstruction" of college curricula. In truth, few colleges or universities have been so bold. Harvard's proposal is not radical: it invokes the old system of course requirements. Nor are our own proposals radical. If anything, they are conservative, but in ways that Ernie Boyer, if he were alive today, might endorse. They respond to the new (or newly recognized) needs of leaders in an increasingly global culture for what Jefferson called the useful sciences—humanities, languages, social sciences, natural sciences, ethics, and mathematics.


John T. Casteen III