At Goucher College, we are rethinking our curriculum. Specifically, we’re asking: What is the core of a liberal arts degree? What is general education in that context? And what is the relationship between a major and general education? Perhaps students should only declare a mission and not a major? We are doing so amidst a daily tidal wave of criticism and defense of the liberal arts.
A lot of money is being spent trying to convince people that the liberal arts are good for students and for the country. (Read the Council of Independent Colleges’ argument and the student blogs about the benefits of a liberal arts education that the Mellon Foundation is supporting.)
I hope these kinds of efforts help get the message out about the value of the liberal arts, but I suspect it’s a bit like the government encouraging you to eat more vegetables: expensive and noble, but unlikely to work by itself.
There are equally lots of fairly radical suggestions for reinventing higher education and lots of recent books on this topic, including Andrew Delbanco’s College: What It Was, Is and Should Be, Clayton Christensen’s The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education From the Inside Out, and Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University, just to name a few.
To me, the most attractive prospect (and the approach we are taking at Goucher) is to try and reframe the liberal arts as the degree of the future. Technology and the increased pace of knowledge creation have changed our world, but they only underscore the need to focus on creating graduates who are critical thinkers who understand that new information is not just stockpiled: It changes you.
Critical thinking, discernment, and analysis have long been at the core of a liberal arts education. The change from a world of limited but relatively reliable sources (encyclopedias and books), to one with many more sources of less reliable information (webpages, postings, tweets, and memes) has fundamentally changed our relationship with knowledge and learning. While our phones all have access to more information than any classroom, calling this device a “smart” phone has confused quantity of information with knowledge. Smart people are not the ones who know the most; they are the people who know how to change their minds.
The jobs of the future belong to those who are more than just critical thinkers. Most of the information students will need in the future, we cannot teach them because it has not yet been discovered. More than ever, students will need to continue learning after graduation. So while content remains critical (both for its own sake, but also as a basis for learning and thinking), our real mission is to create voracious, self-regulated learners.
Being self-regulated means you can manage your own assumptions and cognitive processes. It is related to metacognition, which is the conscious control over your own thinking, including what inputs you value; how you interrogate information; and your own resistance to new inputs, or your “immunity to change” (Kegan & Lahey, 2009). Context and integration are key to change. Employers often ask for flexible and creative problem solvers, but this is really more a way of being than a set of skills. At its core, creative thinking is about an openness to new possibilities, the ability to attend to our own intellectual accent, the integration of conflicting ideas, and the willingness to have new knowledge change how we think about the world. A growth mindset is the ultimate job skill.
At Goucher we have crystalized this as a new “3Rs”—relationships, resilience and reflection . These core ideas came from both the latest cognitive neuroscience research on learning and the Gallup/Purdue survey on lifelong workplace satisfaction: Happy workers and happy people had college faculty who believed in their ability to grow and cared about their learning and future success. When failure and growth are established as a pattern in college, those students continue to be self-regulated learners.
Next semester, we will have an entire themed-semester on mindfulness as we look at everything regarding our curriculum and residential experience.
PART TWO: How did we get here?