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.)