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Colleges pay tribute to diversity yet largely offer a cookie-cutter approach to education.

Go to most campuses, and a conventional, unimaginative, standardized approach to education is the norm: a college education consists of 60 or 120 credit hours, a 15-week-long semester, distribution requirements, a department-based major and three- or five-credit hour lecture, seminar and laboratory courses.

Homogeneity and uniformity are generally the rule, not an education with distinguishing characteristics.

Sure, there are exceptions. Columbia, Chicago and St. John’s offer variations on a great books curriculum. Work colleges like Berea and Paul Quinn require all students to perform campus jobs to defray part of their education’s cost. The co-op approach at Drexel and Northeastern combines classroom-based education with practical work experiences.

Why does a cookie-cutter approach to education prevail? The reasons are obvious:

  • Because that’s the education that most faculty and administrators received.
  • Because it makes it easier for students to transfer credits.
  • Because it’s easy to scale.
  • Because it’s in the interest of faculty who are trained in specific disciplines.

Why, after all, should an institution deviate from the tried and true?

Which is why I was bowled over when I learned what a neighboring institution, Austin Community College, was up to.

Ted Hadzi-Antich Jr., a department chair and an associate professor of government at ACC and himself a graduate of St. John’s College, decided to wage war against a cookie-cutter education. He and his colleagues created and scaled a first-semester student success seminar focused on the discussion-based study of transformative texts.

This course has since become one of ACC’s signature experiences.

ACC, like most two-year institutions, has a shockingly low graduation rate. In 2019, just 7.2 percent of first-time, full-time students earned a degree or certificate in three years. That’s much lower than the rate at similar two-year institutions.

It’s possible, of course, to explain this away. After all, just 3 percent of ACC’s students are first-time, full-time students. Many withdraw to enter Austin’s booming job market, while a large number, around 40 percent, transfer to other, often four-year, institutions.

Still, no institution should rationalize or attempt to justify its organizational failures. Excuse making helps no one.

Clearly, something needed to change.

ACC responded by implementing the community college success formula—a multipronged approach to student retention and success that has become widespread thanks, in part, to the intrepid efforts of the Community College Research Center:

  • Provide every student with a clear degree map.
  • Institute guided pathways to help students remain on a well-defined path to completion.
  • Offer specialized “area of study” orientations to entering students.
  • Strengthen advising and counseling by expanding opportunities for one-on-one interactions with designated professionals.
  • Implement wraparound student support services.
  • Embed tutors in online courses.
  • Replace remedial classes with co-requisite remediation and supplemental instruction.

Such steps are necessary but insufficient. In the absence of a richer, more engaging, inspiring and supportive academic experience and a deeper sense of connection and belonging, these innovations wouldn’t amount to a hill of beans.

That’s where Hadzi-Antich stepped up to the plate.

Drawing on his own St. John’s College undergraduate education, he decided that ACC needed a new kind of first-year student experience that combined student success training, academic and career counseling, cultivation of writing and oral communication skills, and a curriculum organized around timeless big questions (about the self, identity, justice and other enduring philosophical, theological, moral and political issues) and critical engagement with foundational, culturally transformative texts—taught by faculty members genuinely committed to students’ growth and development.

So far, Hadzi-Antich has helped train 100 ACC faculty members adopt the Great Questions discussion-based, text-centered approach, and more than 2,000 students have taken Great Questions seminars. Under this program:

  • Each student meets privately with their professor twice a semester.
  • Students must respond in writing to a study question for each class session.
  • Three larger assignments are designed to help students develop evidence-based arguments.
  • Faculty are responsible for introducing students to ACC’s support services and helping them navigate the curriculum.

The assigned texts are not confined to classics of literature or moral and political philosophy. One key text, surprisingly, is Euclid’s Elements. Nor are the texts exclusively canonical classics or exclusively Western or male-authored. Readings come from Sappho, Du Fu, Li Bai, the Bible, the Quran, St. John of the Cross, Rumi, Mirabi, Nammalvar and Kabir. A comprehensive list of texts can be found here.

Issues addressed in the seminar sessions range from leadership, identity and justice to empathy, community, violence, migration, cultural difference, trauma, power, gender and language

ACC has also established faculty reading groups, including one that focuses on teaching Eastern and Islamic classic texts.

To get a sense of the impact of this approach, take a look at a YouTube video that records students’ comments. You’ll be dazzled.

ACC is not alone in embracing this approach. Thanks to funding from the New York–based Teagle Foundation, which is dedicated to supporting and strengthening liberal arts education and punches well beyond its weight, a number of other institutions have adopted somewhat similar models.

Examples include:

  • Purdue’s Cornerstone: Learning for Living, an immersive, integrated liberal arts certificate program. Given that Purdue is best known for its engineering, education, pharmacy, audiology, business, nursing and speech pathology programs, Cornerstone seeks to introduce these career-minded students to ideas and issues that impact the disciplines of engineering, technology, science, medicine, business and public policy.
  • CUNY’s Core Texts, which began as a collaboration between Hostos Community College and Columbia and has now expanded to three other CUNY campuses: the Borough of Manhattan Community College, LaGuardia Community College and New York City College of Technology.

There is also the Great Questions Foundation, which seeks to promote core-text and discussion-based learning at community colleges nationwide by offering professional development workshops and curriculum redesign support.

As higher education has become more and more stratified, the kind of education that students receive has grown less and less democratic. I worry that only those students who attend selective institutions will receive a rich, well-rounded liberal arts education, while most will receive something quite different: an education that is narrower, more vocational and less attentive to a liberal education’s true goals—the development of a breadth of cross-cultural understanding, personal maturation, advanced research, analytical and communication skills, engagement with the enduring philosophical, moral and political questions, and the growth of a rich interior life and a robust capacity for self-reflection.

A democratic education isn’t simply an education for responsible citizenship or civic engagement. Nor is it merely a matter of instilling democratic values like tolerance or respect for rule of law, freedom speech and religion, or respect for an independent judiciary or election results.

Rather, a truly democratic education requires students to reflect deeply on issues of justice, fairness, equity, freedom and morality. It entails intensive discussion, debate, interaction with classmates and regular, substantive feedback from a professor.

As the great French political philosopher and historian Alexis de Tocqueville recognized nearly two centuries ago, democracy isn’t simply a system of government involving political parties and contested elections that can be easily transplanted from one society to another. Rather, a stable political democracy rests upon a pre-existing democratic social order. That requires a certain equality of condition among its citizens and their active participation in the institutions and associations that comprise civil society.

It also entails, I might add, a broad liberal education that offers the essential knowledge and skills that will allow every member of society to participate in informed democratic decision making.

I’m not alone in worrying about the future of American democracy—and not just because of the authoritarian temptation exhibited by some of our political leaders or the polarization and political vitriol that characterizes public discourse or the congressional gridlock and legal impediments that prevent this society from addressing fundamental issues involving housing, health care, transportation, mental health and environmental and climate concerns in a timely, cost-effective manner.

A more profound problem, which the Harvard professor of public policy Robert D. Putnam has analyzed in depth, lies in increasing social disconnection and the fraying social fabric evident in the weakening of a wide range of social institutions, whether religious, political or community based. Higher education can’t solve those problems, but it can heighten public awareness, cultivate more knowledgeable and reflective citizens, and generate social capital.

ACC’s Great Questions seminars are a small but much needed step toward ensuring that all students, not just the most privileged, receive a genuinely democratic education and get the liberal education that befits a free person.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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