‘College Made Whole’

Professor argues against "unbundling" and for coherence in education.

September 26, 2019
 

In College Made Whole: Integrative Learning for a Divided World (Johns Hopkins University Press), Chris W. Gallagher argues against some of the hot trends in higher education. "Unbundling," he says, makes learning fragmented and incoherent.

Gallagher, a vice chancellor for global learning opportunities and a professor of English at Northeastern University, responded via email to questions.

Q: How do you define "integrative learning"?

A: Integrative learning is what happens when learners connect and synthesize ideas, knowledge and skills across contexts and over time. Integrative learners don’t just collect bits of knowledge and discrete skills; they extract from their experiences the kinds of conceptual frameworks and coherent skill sets that allow them to enter novel situations with competence and confidence.

Integrative learning is not a new idea. The Association of American Colleges and Universities, for instance, has sponsored a lot of good work on it. But as I suggest in the book, we might say of integrative learning what Gandhi reportedly said of Western civilization: it would be a good idea. Most colleges and universities are currently designed -- to the extent that they can be said to be designed at all -- as loose assortments of faculty, disciplines, curricula, students, degree and nondegree options, and so on. And now many are calling for these institutions to be furtherunbundled.” My book argues that, on the contrary, we need to design integrated institutions to promote integrative learning.

Q: What's wrong with the idea that many students don't need degrees, but nondegree credentials?

A: When people say students don’t need degrees, they are really talking about certain learners in which they don’t want to invest. Invariably people who are attacking degrees hold degrees themselves and make damn sure that their kids get them, too. Perhaps this will change at some far-off date, but today, people who can afford degrees (and many who can’t) still pursue them, and employers who can afford to hire people with degrees still require them. This is actually truer since the Great Recession than it was before. In this context, “let them eat nondegree credentials” seems downright cruel.

I am not arguing against alternative credentials, which surely do and will play a role in many learners’ lives. In fact, I think 21st-century learners need multiple kinds of credentials -- longer and shorter term -- throughout their lives. I do have a problem with people with no educational expertise seeking to profit from social inequality by hawking junk credentials as alternatives to degrees. (Props here to Tressie McMillan Cottom for revealing how “lower education” works. Everyone in higher ed -- check that, everyone -- should be reading her. While I’m at it, everyone should also be reading Sara Goldrick-Rab’s work on the price of college and supporting the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice and Equity.)

Q: How do you see integrative learning preparing students for careers?

A: A career is a journey or a trajectory. We are fixated now on just-in-time skills to prepare students for this job, rather than thinking about what learners need throughout their lives. Institutions of higher education should be there for learners every time they look to reskill or upskill, build their professional network, engage in personal growth, or scratch an intellectual itch.

As we prepare students to embark on careers, we need to equip them with skills, capacities and knowledge on which they can build throughout their journeys. What employers want, as they tell us in survey after survey, are people who can work in teams, communicate clearly, engage in ethical decision making and understand systems and how to navigate them. In other words, they are looking for integrative learners and thinkers, not merely technicians in possession of a narrow set of skills. These same skills, by the way, will be required for this generation to face the complex problems and challenges that beset us, from global warming to cyberterrorism to the rise of authoritarian populism.

Q: In many ways, it seems that your book is a defense of the liberal arts. Is it?

A: I would not frame it that way, not least because as a humanities professor, I would like to take the liberal arts off the defensive. They have nothing to apologize for. I suppose I should be grateful that people are finally waking up to the fact that graduates with liberal arts degrees do quite well, including in Silicon Valley, but that’s neither surprising nor the point. All students need to make a living and make a life; they need holistic models of education that integrate liberal learning with professional learning. Liberal arts, STEM and professional disciplines all have something important to contribute to this enterprise.

Liberal learning is learning how to how to be free: to exercise one’s independent faculties, think for oneself and arrive at one’s own judgments. It teaches learners a range of critical and creative capacities -- ethical reasoning, narrative thinking, intercultural inquiry and analysis, etc. -- by engaging them in the study of culture and society. Professional learning helps learners develop the knowledge, skills, values, ways of thinking and behaviors associated with particular occupations. These kinds of learning are not opposed to one another; ideally, they are mutually reinforcing. Professions, after all, exist within societal and cultural milieus.

Q: You write as a humanities professor (and an administrator). How does that shape how you view "college made whole"?

A: I’ve been a professor and an administrator at virtually every level of several kinds of institutions of higher education, so I suppose there’s no use denying I’m an insider. On the other hand, this multitude of vantage points has allowed me to develop skepticism of business as usual in higher education. I’m also a parent of two college students, and as I wrote the book, I tried to view the college experience as much as possible from current and prospective students’ perspectives -- as represented in vignettes throughout the book. In contrast to higher ed books that generalize from an n of one, College Made Whole draws examples both from my own experiences and from a range of institutions and programs very unlike the ones in which I’ve worked. What I hope this all amounts to is a book that celebrates the best parts of higher education -- and of colleges and universities as institutions -- while pointing the way for needed innovation for integration.

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