Educating the Whole Person

Moving beyond basic skills.

October 27, 2014
General education requirements were instituted to ensure that every undergraduate receives the rudiments of a liberal education.The goal was to expose students to the methods, theoretical and conceptual frameworks, essential knowledge and skills, and habits of mind of diverse disciplines,
Approaches to the core curriculum differ widely. Very few institutions follow Brown University in rejecting any core requirements. The vast majority require students to receive a broad, general education before concentrating in a major.
Columbia, St. John’s, and the University of Chicago are among the only institutions to require all students to undergo a common core curriculum experience centered upon key economic, historical, literary, philosophical, and theological texts. Columbia offers a particularly extensive core, constituting about half of all the classes students take during their first and second college years.
Masterworks of Western Literature (Lit Hum) seeks to cultivate those analytic, critical, metacognitive, and writing skills necessary to explicate complex and demanding literary texts, and formulate and articulate one's own ideas and arguments in a compelling manner. The oddly named Introduction to Contemporary Civilization explores what major thinkers, writers, and religious traditions have had to say about the big questions—aesthetic, ethical, historical, philosophical, political, psychological, and theological. Art and Music Humanities, in turn, introduce students to ways to think and write about major works of painting, architecture, and music, while Frontiers of Science exposes students to issues at the forefront of the study of cosmology, earth science, evolution, and neuroscience.
Intended to provide students with a common intellectual experience that cuts across disciplinary boundaries, the core curriculum has received both high praise, notably in David Denby’s Great Books: My Adventures With Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World, and harsh criticism from those, like Helen Vendler, who dismiss it either as a dilettantish survey or as a misguided attempt to preserve the Western canon in the face of calls for a more diverse, gender and racially aware, multicultural curriculum.
Full disclosure: I taught multiple courses in Columbia’s core curriculum, and consider it a kind of Platonic ideal. It ensured that all students acquired the key elements of a liberal education: a grasp of historical periodization; a familiarity with essential texts, literary, philosophical, aural, and visual; and a critical encounter with ongoing debates over such subjects as the existence of free will, the definition of good and evil, the best form of government, and how the young should best be educated.
A second approach to the core involves breadth or distribution requirements that oblige students to take courses across a spectrum academic areas. Some define those areas in terms of broad disciplinary categories: the arts, the humanities, the social sciences, and natural sciences, while others define these areas thematically, such as cultural traditions, cultural change, social analysis , and moral reasoning. In either case, these requirements can generally be fulfilled with a wide range of general introductory survey courses or smaller classes devoted to highly specialized subjects.
Staunchly defended by departments that benefit from enrollment in introductory courses, as well as those other departments which seek to broaden the range of classes eligible to meet core requirements, an approach emphasizing breadth is justified intellectually on the grounds that acquisition of specific content is less important than learning the methodological approaches and habits of minds of diverse disciplines. What courses students study are less important than learning to think analytically and critically within particular disciplinary frameworks.
A good example that pushes this model slightly further than mere 'checking boxes' would be the General Education program adopted by Harvard College that seeks explicitly to “connect a student’s liberal education – that is, an education conducted in a spirit of free inquiry, rewarding in its own right – to life beyond college.”
Critics, nevertheless, object that distribution requirements tend to be incoherent, consisting of a grab bag of disconnected courses. Few of these classes offer a broad perspective upon disciplinary approaches to knowledge, let alone a set of ideas and skills that all students should acquire.
A third approach emphasizes interdisciplinary learning experiences, commonly featuring a team-taught approach involving faculty from diverse disciplines. The exemplar of this approach is Portland State University, which seeks to encourage lower division undergraduates to make creative connections across disciplines. A variant might be a thematically unified core focusing on a broad multidisciplinary theme.  At the new University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, which will open in Fall 2015, and will have the country’s second largest Hispanic student population, there has been some discussion of a core focused on border issues, including the border environment, border health issues, immigration, biculturalism, and the history, music, art, and literature of south Texas and northern Mexico.
Many general education requirements relegate skills development, including instruction in rhetoric and composition or to study skills,  to separate courses, disconnected from disciplinary or content areas.
Core curricula have never been static.  During the late 1960s and early 1970s, many institutions discarded core requirements of any kind, only to reinstitute them in the 1980s and 1990s.  Today, the evolution of gen ed courses continues.  Among recent developments are these:
1.  A heightened emphasis on learning outcomes.
These proficiencies include communication – reading, writing, listening, and oral presentation); quantitative literacy -- numeracy and statistics; reasoning – critical thinking problem solving, analysis, synthesis, and decision making; and interpersonal interaction – teamwork, collaborative learning, and cross-cultural competence.
2.  Integration of skills development and content courses.
Writing across the curriculum is the most visible example of this trend, but some institutions allow students to meet their quantitative reasoning requirements with courses in logic or in statistical methods in a variety of disciplines.
3.  Freshman seminars and research experiences.
Intimate contact with professors and experiential learning are among the high impact practices that the George Kuh, a leading authority on student engagement and retention, has  correlated with higher rates of student persistence.
4.  Redesign of core courses to improve learning while reducing costs.
Carol A. Twigg, the President of the National Center for Academic Transformation has assisted many colleges and universities to increase productivity without sacrificing learning outcomes through more efficient modes of instruction that involve alternate staffing (for example, using peer mentors), computer-based instruction, e-learning at scale, a hybrid model that incorporates technology-based activities outside of class, and an emporium model of instruction where large numbers of students work with instructional software, with tutors readily available.
Some institutions have a uniform core for all students.  In others, like UC Berkeley, individual colleges define their own requirements.
What few cores strive to do is what Jesuit institutions seek to accomplish: to educate the whole person. This vision of a holistic education seeks not only to instill basic skills, diverse modes of reasoning, or familiarity with essential texts or disciplinary approaches, but to help students define an identity, a direction in life, and a personal philosophy.
But education of the whole person is about more than self-actualization; it also attempts to cultivate students’ social, emotional, physical, and ethical development and to foster creativity, promote psychological well-being, stimulate a rich and thoughtful interior life, explore core beliefs, encourage social engagement, and cultivate empathy and an ethic of service and caring.
With the exception of isolated service learning initiatives, secular institutions have largely forsaken the ideal of educating the whole person. But pressure to do just that is mounting. One force for change grows out of mounting campus concerns over sexual abuse, binge drinking, bullying, hazing, inappropriate use of social media, and racial divisions.These concerns have created momentum for institutions to foster dialogue on issues previously defined as moral rather than educational. Another engine of change emerges out of the sense that too few students clearly define career goals in college and a realistic plan for achieving these and a belief that it is no longer enough for campuses to relegate this challenge to career services offices.
The time is ripe for a lower division experience that moves beyond the teaching of basic skills or of great texts or disciplinary perspectives, and which seeks in ways compatible with the extraordinary diversity of our student body to imagine a holistic education that is not just multidisciplinary, but truly multidimensional.
Steven Mintz is the Executive Director of the University of Texas System’s Institute for Transformational Learning and a Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin.


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