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In his latest posting on his School Reform and Classroom Practice blog, Larry Cuban, the dean of historians of American education, tells the story of a remarkable educational experiment. Between 1933 and 1941, some 300 universities and colleges agreed to waive admissions requirements for the graduates of 30 high schools, half public, half private, that adopted innovative curricula and pedagogies.

As Cuban explains, “Old lesson plans were scrapped. One school sent classes into the West Virginia coal region to study unions. Science, history, art and math were often combined in projects that students and teachers planned together.”

He adds, “Many of the large public high schools … created small schools within the larger one. Principals increased the authority of teachers to design and steer the program; teachers crossed departmental boundaries and created a core curriculum (math/science and English/social studies).”

All, to be sure, wasn’t peaches and cream. “A few principals blocked the experiment. Some school faculties divided into warring factions. And some district school boards dropped out of the Study.” U.S. entry into World War II brought this experiment to an end, and memories of its very existence soon faded.

Over all, the experiment proved highly successful. “Evaluators,” who compared students in the experimental program with matched peers who did not, “found that graduates of the thirty schools earned a slightly higher [college] grade average and more academic honors than those who attended regular high school.” These students also “were more precise in their thinking, displayed more ingenuity in meeting new situations and demonstrated an active interest in national and world issues than their matched counterpart.”

Cuban’s takeaways: when teachers and administrators were given the freedom to experiment, they came through. Students who were academically engaged were more likely to become active in their communities and more thoughtful problem solvers. Innovations that aren’t imposed from the top down are more likely to achieve buy-in and succeed.

The Eight-Year Study offers some important lessons for higher education:

  • Encourage and support faculty and staff who want to take steps to more actively engage students.
  • Create islands of innovation where experiments in curricula and pedagogy can take place.
  • Rigorously evaluate the outcomes.

I fear that institutions, including my own, have lost sight of college’s true purpose. It’s not just about earning a credential or getting a well-paying first job. Nor is it simply about knowledge and skill acquisition. College ought to be developmental and transformational.

College-going ought to be about forging deep, lifelong friendships and encountering new, more complex concepts and ways of thinking. It should also be about interacting with people from diverse backgrounds and viewpoints and going through life-changing experiences in the company of faculty mentors and classmates and, as a result, having epiphanies that forever change a person’s outlook and sense of self.

For those of traditional college-going age, something that resembles a residential college experience offers a coming-of-age experience second to none. It’s the first step on the road to adulthood independence. But even for nontraditional students—who commute or who combine their studies with work and caregiving responsibilities—college ought to be about intellectual growth, self-discovery and self-formation.

If colleges and universities are to fulfill their high purpose—if they are to promote personal development and transformation—they need to evolve. I agree with Adrian Wooldridge: campuses need to refocus, rebalance and re-engineer.

They need to refocus on their core mission—teaching, advising and mentoring—while addressing equity and opportunity gaps.

They must rethink their priorities, placing a stronger emphasis on learning and career outcomes, on economic mobility and ensuring that students acquire the skills, knowledge and personal attributes expected of a college graduate.

They must also re-engineer their curriculum, teaching, course schedules and administrative processes to be more effective. They need to make degree pathways more coherent and integrated and teaching more active, experiential and project-based.

They also need to do more to promote career awareness and ensure that students get the timely academic, personal and career support and guidance they need, while being highly cognizant of costs and resource constraints.

All, I know, easier said than done, especially in a context of severe resource constraints.

Which brings me to this post’s primary concern: how our institutions can do a better job of providing the kind of educational experience we used to associate with small liberal arts colleges.

That was the education that I had, with lots of small classes, interaction with faculty and rich extracurricular opportunities. But that college ideal has lost traction except at the most mission driven institutions: HBCUs and religious colleges.

How can we deliver an education like that at underresourced institutions or at research-focused campuses like mine and at institutions with large numbers of commuters, transfer students and part-time students?

A recent National Bureau of Economic Research essay, by Gregory Price of Langston University and Angelino Viceisza of Spelman College, asks and offers some answers to the question “What Can Historically Black Colleges and Universities Teach about Improving Higher Education Outcomes for Black Students?”

I’d argue that the article’s recommendations could apply to all students, irrespective of their institution.

According to Price and Viceisza, HBCUs tend to:

  • Have a firm sense of mission, including a focus on individual and community development, identity formation, self-esteem, civic engagement and social justice.
  • Invest heavily in college-preparation summer programs.
  • Prize teaching quality and mentoring as much or more than research.
  • Focus on whole-person development.
  • Are dedicated to cultivating a sense of belonging and do more than other institutions to connect undergraduates with faculty and alumni.
  • Offer, as part of an integrated, holistic first-year experience, extensive culturally relevant courses and programming, as well as first-year research experiences.
  • Create structured pathways to postbacc degrees and to graduate and professional schools.

Can secular institutions or campuses that do not serve a specific demographic do something similar? I think the answer is yes, but it will require those campuses to rethink the nature of the curriculum and the faulty role.

In addition to ensuring that their undergraduates acquire essential communication and numerical skills and the scientific, political, financial, historical and cultural literacy that active participation in society requires, campuses should also systematically and intentionally help students mature as people and as thinkers.

College-going ought to be about forging deep, lifelong friendships, developing a rich interior life, acquiring a lifelong appreciation of the arts, interacting with people from diverse backgrounds and viewpoints, and encountering and embracing new, more complex concepts and ways of thinking.

Too often, institutions, including mine, assume that those goals are achieved automatically, as a result of serendipity. Too often, however, that doesn’t happen, as underscored by the mounting campus mental health crisis.

We can achieve these goals more intentionally and systematically. Here’s how.

  • Embed many more students into a learning community or a cohort program with a faculty mentor and dedicated advising and organized around a theme or interest.
  • Reimagine major and degree pathways to emphasize professional identity formation. After all, practicing professionals must master not only technical skills but grasp the history, ethics and distinctive culture of a particular field of study and the soft skills that a profession requires.
  • Better balance highly specialized, discipline-specific courses with broader, more interdisciplinary classes that address existential or life issues (such as evil, love, responsibility, suffering, tragedy and life’s purpose), adulthood skills (including relationship skills and stress management), and contemporary challenges (for example, those involving the environment, homelessness, poverty, social justice).
  • Embrace a broader conception of faculty roles and responsibilities, not only as teachers and scholars, but as mentors, advisers and learning architects.

I believe that a college education should be filled with epiphanies—discoveries, realizations and moments of inspiration that unlock the gates of perception, reshape our values and aspirations, and reveal fundamental truths about ourselves and the world around us.

The word “epiphany” derives from the Greek term epiphanea, which refers to a sudden discovery or realization. Subsequently applied to the revelation of the Christ child to the gentiles, when the Magi visited Bethlehem to see Jesus, the notion of an epiphany as a blinding moment of spiritual upheaval and insight became a central feature in spiritual autobiographies from Augustine’s Confessions onward.

Romantic poets like William Wordsworth and modernist novelists like James Joyce and Marcel Proust helped introduce the modern meaning of epiphany as a sudden flash of insight or a moment of heightened perception that profoundly alters our understanding of ourselves and our grasp of the world.

I, of course, want my students to become culturally and historically literate and learn how to think like a scientist, a social scientist and a critic of art, literature and music. I want them to become career conscious and acquire career-aligned skills. But I also want them to experience something in college that they may well not undergo ever again: what Herman Melville, in his 1850 essay “Hawthorne and His Mosses,” called “the shock of recognition.” That’s those moments of revelation, realization and recognition when we see the world afresh, begin our lives again and define our values anew.

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

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