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A New Moment for the Liberal Arts: Setting The Liberal Arts On A Path for a Sustainable Future

The EvoLLLution | ‘We Didn’t Design This School For You’: Setting The Liberal Arts On A Path for a Sustainable Future
The challenges facing higher education are actually an incredible opportunity for reframing what it means to be a student at a liberal arts university.

In 2003, after 11 years as a high school teacher, I was given a profound gift. I was asked to assume the leadership of a Montessori school. This was a spectacular shock as I had no background as a Montessori practitioner, but was wooed by a simple statement from the chair of the school board: “Trust me, you’re going to love this.”

Accepting the job showed extreme naivety on my part. Thankfully, I had the good sense to immediately attend the Toronto Montessori Institute where I dove into Montessori’s philosophy and pedagogy and was instantly attracted to the developmental focus. I committed myself to a journey to discover the child anew—to unlearn much of what I had been exposed to in traditional teacher preparation and to come to terms with my own bias as an educator.

A couple of years into my tenure as head of school, I had a conversation with one of my teachers who was presenting a lesson to a three-year-old child: the dressing frames. I was amazed by the student’s concentration and attention to detail. Once I had the opportunity to debrief with the teacher on what I had seen, I began a conversation about a series of games that I had run across which also promoted fine motor control and I asked if these activities would be something she would care to add to her classroom. I’ll never forget the teacher’s response. She thought the games would be great activities for students to engage in at home, but as to whether she would add the program to her classroom, she asked if the games had a higher purpose. She explained that while the dressing frame did improve the child’s manual dexterity and fine motor control, the object of the activity was connected to a fundamental need of mankind, that of clothing, shelter and warmth. It was not merely performed to achieve a score. It was also indirect preparation for several other lessons in the classroom; the program had a flow, a connection. “Taking away the dressing frames would interrupt the flow as the child begins to gain confidence in controlling their movements and exploring their independence.” It was an incredible piece of wisdom, perfectly explained.

Today, I educate graduate students at a Jesuit liberal arts university and whenever I ask myself about activities for the students, I think back to the dressing frames. For every exercise I choose, I must ask myself if it is the right lesson for this student at this moment, but also, if the activity will serve a higher purpose. Does the lesson connect them to something beyond the material? Does it offer them a tool to unlock a new intellectual, emotional or spiritual challenge?

That is a high bar to reach on every single activity, but I truly believe it is the essence of what we have grown to call the liberal arts.

Unlike my preparation as a Montessori educator, no one ever sat me down and defined for me the term liberal arts. To our undergraduate students it means a certain basket of courses. As faculty, I think we have begun to crystalize a notion of the liberal arts that is defined by certain disciplines. In doing so, I wonder if we are asking ourselves the right questions about the activities that go into a liberal arts core curriculum. Just as the Montessori teacher who defended her environment, we should be equally intentional about the experiences young people require to not only gain skills but to interpret their world and to discover their inner purpose.

If a philosophy course requires students to memorize the names, spelling and eras of key philosophers, it may have limited use in a liberal arts curriculum. However, as we know, philosophy is so much more. By connecting philosophical readings through the ages, we construct arguments to interpret history, identify current paradoxes and struggle with our internal questions of truth and meaning.

I would argue that many disciplines, even those not traditionally associated with the liberal arts, similarly open doors to this kind of critical analysis. Perhaps we do the liberal arts a disservice when we make the core choices discipline specific. As content becomes more readily available and online courses quickly become the norm, we need to have a broader conversation about the purpose of education. We know that the classroom has the ability to transform lives, but as students become increasingly transactional in approaching their studies, we need to evaluate the structures that have held the core in place for generations. Are these structures now holding us back from deeper inquiry about the nature and place of the liberal arts?

Structures such as classrooms, timetables, departments and grades were once required as a means to operationalize a liberal arts core. The scope and sequence could be controlled in a way that ensured a replicable experience for students that moved them through a tried-and-true curriculum. Technology, in my view, has little effect on the purpose of learning, however it could have a transformational effect on the structures that support its delivery. The true disruption of educational technology is that it has transferred ownership of learning to the student. This is a very positive development, but it comes at a risk. What if the student does not choose our scope and sequence and what if they choose to skip the dressing frame (that developmental activity that has a higher purpose)?

I have noticed institutions re-retrenching, doubling down, forcing students to submit to an established core by convincing students (and parents) that it is good for them. I don’t think this approach will be successful. In the future I anticipate a more liberal definition of the liberal arts, but also environments that have faculty and students communicating far more often than they currently do. The average class time for college students is 15 hours per week and I would guess that during that time the teacher is the most active participant. In the future I believe that classroom time will disappear and be replaced by conversation time. Once we eliminate the classroom as a structure it opens up a tremendous amount of possibilities for discussions. Rather than measuring content knowledge and attendance, let’s measure conversation quality and implement pre and post course assessments which measure growth in a student’s ability to understand the complexity of issues. Tomorrow’s students will not be lauded by their ability to simplify complex content into unified answers but rather by taking prompts and creating diverse questions and connections.

Today’s educational challenges, fueled by emerging technologies, are a blessing for the liberal arts. They will only make the liberal arts more valuable as the skills of reflection, connection and discernment become increasingly sought after, thus I pose a challenge to educators. Today a student can listen to lectures, produce papers with adequate grades and earn a degree with minimal participation. If the liberal arts are to survive, we need to understand that the structures we have used to define a liberal arts core are now standing in the way of that very survival. These structures have allowed the liberal arts to become a cliché. But there is a change coming, driven by new technology and a generation of learners craving a different experience. I ask educators to recommit to the purpose of liberal arts education, but reject any structures that interfere. Use new technologies judiciously and utilize the time saved and efficiency created to meet more creatively with students. For example, could we conceive of an experience by which the students teach the faculty and are assessed based on the degree to which their arguments expand our point of view? Our basic assumption is that faculty teach and students learn, but what if the ratio wasn’t so one sided? I am not thinking of 50 faculty members trudging to Hall 101 for a Friday seminar. I’m envisioning students preparing a course on a learning management system for us to view and provide feedback. Could part of a student’s load be to teach, or more accurately to share? This would be the epitome of a liberal arts learning community and technology helps us to imagine the possibilities.

In 2014, my educational journey was again enriched by the opportunity to learn and internalize a Jesuit approach to life and to understand the importance of the liberal arts as a cornerstone of an education that can be of service to humanity. I see the challenges facing higher education as an incredible opportunity for reframing what it means to be a student at a liberal arts university. In many ways, technology is enabling the breadth of conversations that can truly allow a liberal arts education to flourish. Our challenge will be to ensure that we are not married to the structures that impair this new acceleration. As one of my colleagues once said to a group of undergraduate students, “Unfortunately, we didn’t design this school for you.” Now, finally, maybe we can.

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