Defining the university curriculum

What is the purpose of a university education? And who ought to answer this question when it comes to the practical business of maintaining and reforming a university curriculum?

The second question is the easier of the two. In the United States university, the faculty generally have the responsibility and authority to make decisions about the curriculum — from the content of a particular course to the requirements of a disciplinary major, to the nature of the general education requirements to the university’s graduation requirements. To be sure, there are other significant sources of influence and constraint on this faculty-centered process. Accreditation agencies like the HLC (Higher Learning Commission), ACS (chemistry),  AACSB (business), and ABET (engineering) constrain various levels of curricular design at the university level and the professional or disciplinary levels. Schools of business, colleges of engineering, and chemistry departments are constrained and guided by the agencies that control their accreditation. But it is the faculty of a particular university, school, or department that fundamentally drive the process of curriculum design and maintenance.

It could have been otherwise, of course. Other nations have implemented more centralized processes where ministries of education determine the structure and content of a university program of study. And we could imagine vesting this authority in the hands of local academic administrators — deans and provosts. But in the United States the role of the academic administrator is largely one of persuasive collaborator rather than authoritative decision-maker when it comes to the curriculum. And the reason for this is pretty compelling: faculty are experts on the content and structure of knowledge and it makes sense to entrust them with the responsibility of organizing the educational experience.

But let’s go back to the harder question: what is our society trying to accomplish through a university education? Why is this a worthwhile goal? And how can we best accomplish the goal?

Most fundamentally universities exist to continue the intellectual and personal development of young people; to help them gain the skills and knowledge they will need to carry out their plans of life; and to help them fulfill their capacities as citizens, creators, and leaders. A university education ought to be an environment in which the young person is challenged and assisted in the process of expanding and deepening his or her intellectual capabilities.

We might put these ideas in more practical terms by saying that a university education should allow the student to develop the capabilities he or she will need to succeed in a career and to make productive contributions to the society of the future.

And what do these goals require in terms of a curriculum? What are those skills, capabilities, and bodies of knowledge that young people need to cultivate in order to achieve the kinds of success mentioned here?

This is the point at which there is often disagreement among various academic voices and non-academic stakeholders. There is a very career-oriented perspective that holds that there are specific professional skills that should be the primary content of a university education. On this approach, the specialized major needs to be the focus of the undergraduate’s work, and the bulk of the student’s effort should be directed towards acquiring these specific skills.

But there is also an approach that emphasizes the importance of breadth and pluralism within the university curriculum. On this “liberal learning” philosophy, the university student needs to be broadly exposed to the arts, humanities, mathematics, and the social and natural sciences.  Here the emphasis is on helping the student acquire a broad set of intellectual capacities, not tied to a particular professional body of knowledge.

The reasons offered for this answer to the question are pragmatic ones. A leader or creator — in whatever career — needs to have an understanding of the social and historical context of the problems he or she confronts. He/she needs to have a rich imagination as he confronts unprecedented challenges — within a startup company, a non-profit organization, or a state legislature. He/she needs to have the ability and confidence needed to arrive at original approaches to a problem. And he/she needs a broad set of skills of analysis, reasoning, and communication, as he works with others to discover and implement new solutions. So a liberal education is a superb foundation for almost any career — engineer, accountant, doctor, community activist, or president.

This picture argues for breadth in the undergraduate experience. It also argues for two other curricular values: interdisciplinarity and multicultural breadth. It is evident that the difficult problems our civilization faces do not fit neatly into specific academic disciplines. Climate change, mortgage crises, and the legacy of racism all pose dense, “wicked” problems that demand cross-discipline collaboration. And likewise, the advantages created for US society by the racial and ethnic diversity of our population will be wasted if our young adults don’t learn how to see the world through multiple perspectives of different human circumstances. A university isn’t the only place where multicultural learning takes place, but it is one very important place. And to date universities have only scratched the surface in creating a genuinely multicultural learning environment.

So these are a few leading values that can serve to guide decisions about what an effective university education for the twenty-first century ought to include: breadth, imagination, historical and social context, rigorous reasoning, and a genuine ability to live and work in a multicultural world.  And most great universities in the United States have placed their bets on some version of this philosophy of liberal learning.  This bundle of features should lead to flexibility of mind, readiness for innovation, preparation for working collaboratively, and a set of intellectual skills that support effective problem solving.  (Martha Nussbaum’s Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education lays out a very similar educational philosophy; her book is worth reading by everyone with an interest in university curriculum reform.)


5 responses

  1. You know..I would normally accept the following statements as fact: –The reasons offered for this answer to the question are pragmatic ones. A leader or creator – in whatever career – needs to have an understanding of the social and historical context of the problems he or she confronts. He/she needs to have a rich imagination as he confronts unprecedented challenges – within a startup company, a non-profit organization, or a state legislature. He/she needs to have the ability and confidence needed to arrive at original approaches to a problem.–But I'd like a little more rigour. I'd like to know why that statement is true. In ancient times, most leaders did not have the benefit of social and historical context to their decision making. Were they lesser leaders?Just a thought.

  2. I like Nussbaum's invocation of the Western classics (Cicero, Socrates, etc…). One slight amendment I would like to make is that every culture in the world has classicals texts and traditions and these need to be added to the western curriculum too. Often these classics get buried under political problems like they have in Burma and Thailand. Because they have been mobilized as symbols in nationalistic politics they become charged often with quite negative meanings. Recovering classical traditions from mere fodder for nationalism is an important albeit neglected task.

  3. Dan, thanks for this post. The set of values that you articulate — "breadth, imagination, historical and social context, rigorous reasoning, and a genuine ability to live and work in a multicultural world" — is an excellent list, and I agree that most great universities, indeed most good universities, have placed their bets on some such vision of liberal learning. It is less clear to me that this set is in fact strongly realized in university curricula, or that in practice the values add up to a whole equal to or greater than the sum of the parts. (Perhaps they don't have to; a dispersed curriculum might be fine.) How to develop a good, truly liberating general education, as opposed to concentration or major, seems a nut that few institutions have fully cracked. Pragmatic justification of liberal learning is fine, but sometimes I'd like to see a little more pragma and a little less justification. In highlighting justification in terms of career benefits you do not, of course, exclude the benefits of liberal education for citizenship and personal life, but I do wonder if there might be a couple of other candidate values for your list more directly pertinent to the latter — political and moral valuation. It’s an age-old question whether virtue can/should be taught; there are real questions about value-neutral vs. advocacy-oriented approaches to education; and political and moral reflection might already be embedded interstitially, as it were, in your list. But I think these could be questions well worth considering.

  4. Gary,Thanks for these thoughtful comments. You raise very important issues, and there's plenty of room for debate about both ideas: can we really create a "general" education that works; and can we create a university environment that helps students mature ethically and as citizens?Here are a few thoughts about the general education question. There are colleges like St Johns (Annapolis and Santa Fe) that jettison the concept of a major altogether and create an education centered on careful study of great texts. Other institutions like Colgate University have a "core" curriculum of general education courses that are required of every student and serve as a sort of intellectual foundation for their specialized majors. The core might include 5 courses (20 credit hours), so it represents a meaningful fraction of the 32 course graduation requirement. It is then the task of the faculty who jointly determine the content of these courses to do a good job of identifying learning goals and designing a syllabus that achieves these goals. The weakest approach is the standard distribution requirement: 2 courses in math, 2 courses in natural science, 2 courses in humanities, … The weakness of this approach, as you imply, is that it is a smorgasbord that may not really do much of a job in exposing the undergraduate to the best ways of thinking associated with an area of study. I've sometimes dreamed of an undergraduate curriculum that did not involve a major, but instead involved in-depth exposure (5-6 courses) in a range of disciplines. These graduates would lack specialized knowledge but would be strongly prepared in quantitative skills, reasoning, acquaintance with history, …On the ethics question: this also is tricky. I don't think anyone would support the idea that a university ought to "teach" a specific set of ethical doctrines. But it is a reasonable goal, I think, to hope that the university succeeds in helping students come to think more reflectively and more meaningfully about the ethical and social choices they are faced with and will confront as citizens and professionals.

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