Teaching vs. Learning

Why curricular redesign matters.


June 10, 2015

The high point in my teaching career was leading sections of Columbia University’s core curriculum courses. Columbia is among the last bastions of a traditional private research university offering a prescribed “great books” core to undergraduates. The core’s centerpieces are close readings of landmarks in Western literature and classic texts in philosophy, political theory, and theology.

The New York Times’ columnist David Brooks joked about the very similar core that he encountered as a University of Chicago undergraduate, calling the institution “a Baptist school, where atheist professors teach Jewish students St. Thomas Aquinas.”

So why write about a great books core now? Is this nostalgia for the halcyon days of the past?

As we design curricula for our pre-professional programs across the University of Texas System, we are doing our best to break the divide between the humanities, on the one side, and the professional programs, on the other.

Last week, Inside Higher Ed spoke of the dramatic drop in enrollments in the liberal arts – something we are seeing at universities across the country. Part of the answer, I am convinced, is to make the humanities more relevant to the majors that growing numbers of students are pursuing.

The Chicago or Columbia core (among several others I am sure readers will be happy to point out) epitomizes what many define as a liberal education: Rather than preparing a student for pre-professional studies (the first step en route to further study in medicine, engineering, or business) or for a vocation, the core (ideally) cultivates a student’s aesthetic sensibilities, powers of ethical reasoning, and historical consciousness, familiarizes students with a “canon,” and nurtures his or her ability to reckon with issues of meaning, purpose, and human nature.

A common intellectual experience by students also builds community, since all students share a similar frame of reference, and acquire a common set of tools for communication: oral and written communication skills (since most students must write weekly), and critical discussion, with prompts to encourage students to reflect on life’s biggest questions.

As important as the content that student encounter in a great books core is how the courses are taught. One doesn’t teach the core, at least as we usually use that term. The syllabus and course requirements are fixed. Lectures are verboten. Some test questions are uniformly prescribed.

Nor must the section leaders hold a terminal degree. Most, in fact, don’t. Some are grad students; a few others, working professionals. One of my core colleagues was the former executive editor of The New York Times, Max Frankel.

The term used to describe the core instructors is preceptor, and the label is telling. The word “preceptor” originally referred to the head of a preceptory, a fraternal or military order. A preceptor, then, is less a teacher or mentor than a senior member of a brotherhood.

A Columbia- or University of Chicago-style core is not readily transplantable, at least outside of certain honors colleges. It is subject to continuing criticism from those who regard it as Eurocentric or as an “amateurish bull session,” due to the fact that sections are led by non-specialists who do not richly contextualize the readings.

In fact, the great books core prides itself on an approach that is pure Martin Luther: Reading texts without the scaffolding of earlier exegesis.  Students are discouraged from reading secondary sources.

I am not here to defend the core … but instead to use it as a way to emphasize another point. My take-away is simple: Many of the richest learning experiences, especially in the humanities, involve learning, but not structured teaching (as generally defined). Nor do these experiences depend on a teacher as authority figure or fount of knowledge.

To teach is to impart knowledge and skills or to give instruction. To learn, however, is generally quite different. To be sure, it involves acquiring knowledge and skills—though this is rarely the product of oral transmission. It is to construct a framework for understanding and to acquire enduring mastery over a wide range of content, skills, and habits of mind. It involves synthesis, interpretation, judgment, and application. It is attained partly by listening, but also by practice, problem-solving, reflection, and active learning.

This then leads to another point --- deconstructing what may be the magic for learners and teachers (in the best cases) of a great books core program. Or, to put it another way, what makes Columbia’s or Chicago’s core a transformative experience? For one thing, it is developmental. It addresses each of Arthur Chickering’s vectors of identity development: attaining competence, managing emotions, achieving autonomy, developing mature interpersonal relationships, forging a personal identity, and developing integrity and a sense of purpose.

It is also holistic. To use Benjamin Bloom’s categories, it speaks to three distinctive domains: The cognitive (which includes knowledge and the ability to apply, analyze, synthesize, generalize, and evaluate); the affective (which includes a capacity to monitor, evaluate, and organize one’s emotional responses); and psycho-motor (which, for Bloom, not only includes certain physical skills and proficiencies but also perception, observation, and mindsets).

In addition, such an experience is integrative. Disciplinary and genre boundaries – literature, history, philosophy, political science, and religion – are deliberately ignored.

Then, too, it is immersive. It purposively occupies a disproportionate share of a student’s lower-division experience. It isn’t intended to be one course out of many.

What it doesn’t involve is the mere transmission of knowledge.

The key question is whether we can take the elements that the core does well and apply these to other classes or academic programs. In short, can we separate the container from the content? For many, the magic of the core lies in its content. But I’d like to suggest that much of the magic lies in the approach, which is developmental, holistic, integrative, immersive, and learner-centered.

So let’s move beyond the debate of “to core or not to core,” and recognize that this is the wrong question. We need to step back and think about curricular design. There is a tendency to become trapped in a crude divide between pre-professional programs and the liberal arts, when instead we might ask how the liberal arts might contribute to the formation of a well-rounded, humanistic professional identity.

How, then, can the example of the great books core inform innovative approaches to curricular design and pedagogy? We need to architect experiences that truly do promote learning along multiple dimensions. We should embrace the idea that all learning is developmental, necessarily involving reversals, setbacks, and forgetting as students move along a path toward enduring mastery. We should also recognize that much of the most lasting learning comes when students teach themselves, individually and as members of a team. Nor should we look askance at the idea of the faculty member as a scaffold rather than as a lecturer.

After all, physicians need to know about narrative medicine, the history of medicine and public health, the medical humanities, and medical ethics. These aren’t add-ons; they are essential attributes of a professional identity.

Wouldn’t engineers benefit not merely from the history of technology, but from expertise in design and professional ethics and the nature of creativity and innovation?

Humanists, if they cared, could speak to those issues.

Steven Mintz is Executive Director of the University of Texas System's Institute for Transformational Learning and Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin. Harvard University Press just published his latest book, The Prime of Life: A History of Modern Adulthood.

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