The Role of the Undergraduate Major in Advancing Liberal Learning
This is a talk I gave at a meeting of the American Historical Association in January, 2008 and it's called, "The Role of the Undergraduate Major in Advancing Liberal Learning." The panel at which I spoke was arranged by Jim Grossman of the Newberry Library who has provided a lot of leadership for a project that the Teagle Foundation has been funding through the National History Center in Washington.
When I was directing the other NHC—that is the National Humanities Center down in Research Triangle Park—it was the height of grand theory and rampant post modernism. Those were contentious times, but every year we had in residence a group of lively, thoughtful historians. The thing I liked best was their insistence on evidence. They were savvy about it; they were not naïve empiricists by any means, indeed they were alert to the linguistic turn that had done such important things for the study of history and indeed for humanistic disciplines more generally. But they kept focused on evidence and on the question, "How do we know?" That made them lively interlocutors in every seminar, over lunch, other meals, and great fun to talk to. I learned a lot from them. And that question—"How do we know?"—has stuck with me. It's certainly been helpful to me when I flunked Retirement 101, and woke up one day as president of a modest-sized foundation with a very immodest mission: helping every undergraduate get the best liberal education possible.
When we asked how a foundation of this size (it's now about $180 million in endowment) could fulfill that mission, we realized that the key was going to be evidence, appropriate evidence, thoughtfully used, both by the Foundation and by its grant recipients.
Now we still have a long way to go in fulfilling our mission, but we have learned some things along the way. The most important of them, I believe, is really very simple and it's based on evidence. That is that student engagement and learning can be increased. It's within reach. It can be done and it should be done.
No doubt we will learn more about how to increase student engagement and learning, but it's already clear that progress can be made by four steps:
First, using what we now know now about memory, retention, learning, and cognition.
Second, setting sharply focused, clearly articulated goals at every level, from daily class meetings to the institution's mission statement.
Third, using evidence, educationally appropriate evidence, again at every stage to see how close students are coming to those goals.
And then forth, making the changes that can help them come even closer to those goals.
But of course behind all of this is another question: Which goals? That question opens up a fresh perspective on American education, the way it has changed over the past decade or two. And here's the story, in summary, as I see it.
The understanding of "liberal education" has shifted, in important ways over those years, almost without our noticing it. In the good old days, at many colleges and universities, liberal education was equated with general education. It meant introducing students to a broad swath of content, mostly from the civilizations of ancient Greece and Western Europe. This introduction was accomplished largely through wide ranging courses, often taught by charismatic lecturers to students in their first year or two at college. Then in their junior and senior years, students moved from "breadth" to "depth" as they entered a field of concentration and "majored" in it.
Individual departments were often asked to contribute staff to general education courses, but their real job, it was widely agreed, was to be the development experts in the field. If asked how they knew if they were succeeding, they'd tell you a story about last year's graduate who won a big fellowship at Chicago. And if you pressed for something better than anecdotal evidence, they'd tell you how good their individual courses were and count up the number of majors who went on to graduate work in the field at prestigious institutions.
Now this system worked well as long as the goal of undergraduate education was conceived of through the "breadth" and "depth" antithesis, and through the metaphor of "exposing" students to a "body" of knowledge, shared, as Harvard used to put it at their graduation ceremonies by "the company of all educated men."
Today all that sounds quaint, even antediluvian, and not just because of the chauvinism. Many colleges and universities have now come to think of liberal education in other and more ambitious terms. Cognitive and personal goals replaced the old emphasis on content. The goals, well summarized by the Association of American Colleges and Universities in their LEAP project where you'll find a pamphlet called "The Essential Learning Outcomes." And those outcomes include such things as critical thinking, analytical reasoning, written and oral expression, moral and ethical reasoning, global awareness, civic engagement, and sometimes a range of personal qualities as well. In practice, of course, the list is not a fixed requirement, but an accordion, which each institution can play in its own way, from narrowly defined cognitive outcomes to extended long-term aspirations for personal growth, social responsibility, and well being.
But here's the rub: once liberal education gets redefined and reconceived as goals rather than as "exposure" to a fixed body of knowledge, everything starts to shift. Things may look pretty much the same as one walks across campus, but look closely and you'll notice at least three changes:
First, since ambitious goals can't be reached through a few courses in the first year or two, liberal education becomes a four-year process, potentially involving every course in the curriculum.
Second, work in the major becomes part of liberal education, not something that follows it. The department's job is not just to clone its members by preparing some students for graduate school in the field, but to help every student make progress toward those ambitious cognitive and personal goals. And that means, I believe, that each department has to ask itself what it can contribute to that process and what it can do best. That's not easy. And that's why the Teagle foundation has felt it important to provide support for the National History Center and five other professional organizations to rethink the relationship between departmental objectives and liberal education goals.
Third, the question "How do you know if this is working?" requires a new kind of answer. As long as the goal of a liberal education was exposure to content, course exams were just fine. They are, no doubt, still useful. But when the goals became ambitious, long-term ones, there is a need for some evaluation of cumulative achievement. Fortunately, new forms of assessment such as the Collegiate Learning Assessment and now the Wabash National Study are now available and are becoming a steadily more revealing and useful way of looking at undergraduate education.
These three changes have often come about bottom-up, frequently started by faculty committees trying to improve the curriculum. That's the best way, I think. Scholars and teachers in history and other disciplines don't need Charles Miller, or Mrs. Spellings, or the Department of Education, or the state house politicos, and for that matter they don't need foundation presidents, to tell them how to teach their students. But we all need to roll up our sleeves, work together, and do everything we possibly can to increase student engagement and learning. And we need to be seen as doing that and as being forthright about successes and set backs in the effort to make sure that students are getting the best possible undergraduate education.
History, and the other liberal arts and sciences, have, I am convinced, a terrific story to tell, especially when it comes to helping students acquire these capacities of critical thinking, problem solving, writing, analytical reasoning, oral expression, and so on. But nowadays everyone seems to be, as they say, "from Missouri." In a skeptical age, people say, "Show me, I'm from Missouri. You gotta give me the evidence." We can do that now, and you know what? It doesn't hurt. In fact, I keep hearing from faculty members engaged in Teagle-funded projects that they find that being clear about their goals and using evidence to see how well students are progressing toward them increases their satisfaction and the pleasure they have in teaching. You historians are masters of the use of evidence; that's why so many of the rest of us are looking to learn from you, and your experiences and achievements.