Submitted by Anonymous on January 26, 2017 - 3:00am
What do Columbia University and the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley have in common?
The Ivy League university in New York City and the Hispanic-serving institution in rural Texas are separated by vast geographic and social distance. And yet these two institutions have embraced the idea of a structured core curriculum as the best way to prepare undergraduates for both successful careers and lives of meaningful engagement with our increasingly complex world.
At its heart, a core curriculum in the liberal arts is meant to provide an intellectually unifying experience through deep and sustained engagement with significant texts and enduring human questions. Students grapple with common readings, issues and assignments and discern connections across disciplines. As a result, a core curriculum provides curricular coherence and cultivates a sense of belonging to an intellectual community.
In the Columbia Core, all undergraduates study a common set of foundational works in literature, philosophy, art, music and science. It began almost a century ago as Columbia College reoriented itself toward public schools by dropping its Greek and Latin entrance requirements. The “New College” would offer signature courses on the foundations of Western civilization to all students regardless of their professional aspirations, thus ensuring a shared and nonspecialized intellectual foundation.
A comparative assessment project, funded by the Teagle Foundation, led by faculty members in the core programs at Columbia, Yale University and the University of Chicago, has demonstrated the enduring power of this approach to liberal education. Based on hundreds of interviews with faculty members, students and alumni at various stages of their lives, the project has gathered a wealth of evidence showing that the habits of critical analysis, complex thinking and self-reflection cultivated in these courses provide a key resource for subsequent professional and personal development. The Core experience, the data suggest, continues to deliver benefits far beyond graduation and the specific professional pursuits of its alumni. Whether they are scientists, career diplomats or bankers, alumni point to their Core education as having given them the intellectual flexibility, nuance and ease with complexity on which they have relied in their professional and personal endeavors.
UT Rio Grande Valley, through a Teagle grant, extends the benefits of an elite liberal arts education to a very different undergraduate student population: first-generation, predominantly Latino students from the poorest counties in the United States. The biomedical sciences faculty has reinterpreted a liberal arts core experience as a highly structured foundation to careers in medicine. Although the degree program is professionally oriented, the perspective offered is humanistic in the broadest sense, encouraging students to consider the history of disease and public health, the experience of pain and illness, health informatics, health policy, and medical ethics. This ethos is illustrated by a series of virtual “grand rounds” embedded in course work that enable students to explore diseases and medical conditions through multiple dimensions: the patient’s experience, the lens of the medical care team, the underlying biomedical science, the public health history and the socioeconomic impact.
Early outcomes are promising. The first cohort of 129 biomedical sciences students arrived on the campus in fall 2015, and pass rates -- with a grade of C or better -- in introductory biology, chemistry and composition were 86 percent, 70 percent and 87 percent respectively.
The results underline the powerful impact faculty members can have by organizing curriculum -- not just individual courses -- to support students’ learning and success. Students move through the degree pathway as a cohort, taking sequentially linked courses that reinforce content knowledge and cognitive skills while building a sense of community.
The benefits that flow from a liberal arts core experience are especially significant for those students whom higher education has historically failed. Course requirements are unambiguous to students: no digging through an overwhelming catalog of options that may or may not fulfill vague graduation requirements. Students have a more academically cohesive and “career-aware” experience that makes the value proposition of staying in college clearer. (Other supports help, too; technology is a big one, as a student in the program reflected in this essay.) Ultimately, students respond to structured liberal learning that provides a firm grounding in the ethical, historical, cross-cultural and policy issues relevant not only to their professional aspirations but also to their lives.
Well-defined and integrated curricula put institutions on a virtuous cycle that amplify those benefits. Such curricula curb course proliferation and increase efficiency, freeing up faculty members to spend less time on course development and preparation and more time on high-impact practices like mentoring undergraduate research. As a result, institutions are able to better retain students (and their tuition dollars), deepen their learning, and operate in a more financially sustainable fashion.
Calls for greater curricular coherence are hardly new but have never been more urgent as colleges and universities contend with maintaining access and excellence in the face of resource constraints. As two very different institutions have seen, such coherence can be found in a well-structured core curriculum.
Loni Bordoloi Pazich is program director at the Teagle Foundation. Roosevelt Montas is director of the Center for the Core Curriculum at Columbia University and manages a Teagle grant examining the long-term educational benefits of core curricula. Steve Mintz is executive director of the Institute of Transformational Learning at the University of Texas System and manages a Teagle grant focused on embedding the liberal arts in professional degree pathways at seven UT campuses.
Life will soon be a little easier for oral historians and a number of other kinds of scholars who have had to gain approval from institutional review boards. Revised federal guidance for such boards, to take effect in 2018, says the following activities are “deemed not to be research: (1) Scholarly and journalistic activities (e.g., oral history, journalism, biography, literary criticism, legal research and historical scholarship), including the collection and use of information that focus directly on the specific individuals about whom the information is collected.”
Historians, journalism students and scholars, and others have previously argued that they should be exempt from oversight by a board that aims to protect human research subjects. The American Historical Association, for example, issued a statement in support of the now-published revisions in 2015, saying it appreciates the government’s “consideration of self-regulation by historians. Individuals in any discipline who plan to do oral history interviews should follow the practices and ethical codes developed by the Oral History Association. These principles and codes aim to protect the interests of narrators (e.g., by requiring informed consent) while encouraging the creation of invaluable historical records.”
Who says play is just for kids? Not the University of Cambridge, which through today is accepting applications for a Lego professorship of play. The Lego Foundation is giving 2.5 million pounds ($3.1 million) to fund the position, in addition to a separate £1.5 million ($1.85 million) donation for a play research center in the university's education school, BBC News reported. The university says it aims to produce play-oriented research so that "children are equipped with 21st-century skills like problem solving, teamwork and self-control.” Tiny plastic blocks not your thing? Cambridge has previously advertised for a doctor of chocolate.
Beverly Wendland, James B. Knapp Dean of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins University, has no plans to close the historic Humanities Center, she assured faculty members and students Wednesday. Wendland made her announcement in a cover letter to a faculty committee report on the department’s future. The report recommends one of three courses of action: keeping the center’s name while rethinking its role in relation to other humanities departments; renaming the department as something that more “clearly conveys its identity and focus”; or transforming the humanities center into a comparative literature department, “building on the expertise of current faculty and using vacant faculty lines to recruit strong scholars in this specific, interdisciplinary field.”
Wendland said Johns Hopkins will “consider carefully all of the committee’s recommendations and options in order to determine the best path forward for the humanities.” Students and faculty members objected to the possible closure of the 50-year-old interdisciplinary Humanities Center in the fall, launching a petition and website to save it. The new report calls out some of those protesters, saying, “We believe that the situation could have provided a teachable moment regarding how to engage calmly and rationally with controversy, but unfortunately, the students may not have had proper faculty guidance in doing so.”