22 January, 2010

No News Here

A recent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education delivers news that’s no news. The headline: “Business Curricula Need a Strong Dose of the Liberal Arts, Scholars Say.” The article goes on to point out what we have long known:

Undergraduate business programs should be more deeply infused with the virtues of a traditional liberal-arts education, two scholars said here on Thursday at the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

“Business programs are often quite effective, but also terribly narrow,” said William M. Sullivan, a senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, during a panel discussion. Narrow preprofessional programs, he said, do not give students the depth they need to be morally engaged citizens and intellectually agile workers.

Lest we pat ourselves on the back too quickly, however, the study this article reports notes that instruction in business curricula is generally “more powerful” than that in liberal arts courses. This comes as no surprise in the modern university. There, the traditional humanities have, largely in response to pressures from the professional programs that are simultaneously their competitors and their “feeders,” evolved into mere cultural pass-times or dalliances for professional students. A business student doesn’t care about Shakespeare, but must take Shakespeare. An English department for its very survival, relies upon the business student. And the rigor of the course is, as a result, gutted. Of course, all of this has been helped along by the nihilistic fads in literary criticism that treat words as empty signifiers floating over an abyss of absent signifieds.

Which is why liberal arts colleges qua liberal arts colleges are utterly necessary, even for Lutherans. Or especially for Lutherans. Because the whole intellectual enterprise of Lutheranism is humanistic. Lutherans read Holy Writ like humanists: close readings, focused on the words themselves, their context, their argument, their rhetoric, because they, the Lutherans, think that when Jesus said, “The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life,” [John 6.63] He meant it.

So what’s the lesson? Lutheran colleges: out with the professional training and in with the liberal arts!


Steve Gehrke said...

I think engineering faculty would listen favorably to your approach - we ALWAYS want rigor in our courses. This is not the focus of your blog, but within the modern research university, classical scholars may find allies in engineering schools in the fight against the trendiness and shallowness you deplore. At minimum such an alliance might save a some faculty positions in the classics across the US.

A typical engineering curriculum has 18 - 24 semester credit hours for humanities and social sciences, 6 - 8 courses (note: courses like technical writing do NOT count). This is required for accreditation. This isn't supposed to be a cafeteria style checklist but it is supposed to be integrated with the general accreditation requirements below. Note the emphasis on design and integration with society, and that only the last of the 11 criteria has anything to do with skills, tools and techniques of current practice. We are supposed to be educating for a lifetime, not to be ready to press the right button on a machine on Day 1 after graduation. I understand that you want to do the same thing, though you have a very different way to accomplish this.

I'd be interested in knowing how well this lines up with your view of a Wittenberg education and where it is lacking. How could your view of education be integrated into these standards? Consider also my other comments on this blog that chemical engineering (my area) was invented in Germany; is there anything Wittenbergian lurking in the shadows of the discipline? (note: engineering faculty do find there to be too much educational school jargon in the standards). This is found at http://www.abet.org/forms.shtml#For_Engineering_Programs_Only

Here are the ABET engineering accreditation requirements:

"Criterion 3. Program Outcomes
Engineering programs must demonstrate that their students attain the following outcomes:
(a) an ability to apply knowledge of mathematics, science, and engineering
(b) an ability to design and conduct experiments, as well as to analyze and interpret data
(c) an ability to design a system, component, or process to meet desired needs within realistic
constraints such as economic, environmental, social, political, ethical, health and safety,
manufacturability, and sustainability
(d) an ability to function on multidisciplinary teams
(e) an ability to identify, formulate, and solve engineering problems
(f) an understanding of professional and ethical responsibility
(g) an ability to communicate effectively
(h) the broad education necessary to understand the impact of engineering solutions in a global,
economic, environmental, and societal context
(i) a recognition of the need for, and an ability to engage in life-long learning
(j) a knowledge of contemporary issues
(k) an ability to use the techniques, skills, and modern engineering tools necessary for
engineering practice.

Program outcomes are outcomes (a) through (k) plus any additional outcomes that may be articulated by the program. Program outcomes must foster attainment of program educational objectives.

There must be an assessment and evaluation process that periodically documents and demonstrates the degree to which the program outcomes are attained."

Jon Bruss said...

Steve, a couple of observations. First, as a merely outside observer of a engineering curriculum, I'd say that in terms of intentionality, rigor, and integration, an engineering curriculum may well far better represent the kind of intentionality, rigor, and integration that the education in the faculty of arts in Wittenberg delivered. The smorgasbord has been the bane of focused higher education since it was introduced and really took off in the post-World-War-II era with dramatic increases after Korea and Vietnam. It was the influx of not always-well-prepared students coupled with the allurement of big government money (GI Bill) that caused the tectonic shift, at least in the States, away from intentional, rigorous, and integrated curricula, at least in the faculty of arts. So kudos to engineering, et al.

That said, engineering (et al.) treat the faculty of arts as, I think, they've long been treated. I'm not arguing that the faculty of arts hasn't brought this upon itself, either. Coupled with the proliferation at the smorgasbord, the faculty of arts, motivated by perceptions about smart choices to make for its own survival, has sort of prostituted itself out to the university, and there's been a trickle-down effect in the colleges (think private liberal arts colleges, for example), as well. Not certain any longer that it could insist that an integrated core (n.b.: integrated) could be "sold," and under pressures to make its curriculum serviceable for the professional schools, as well, rhetoric, to take but one example, became the sole province of English 101, College Writing, with no intentional tracing through the rest of the English program, never mind the rest of the faculty of arts curriculum. So what's left is the APPEARANCE of an arts curriculum, but what you really have is a sort of disassembled kit house that's missing pieces when you try to put it back together (and the students are left to do so without any plans!). So the requirements the engineering has OUTSIDE of engineering are well-motivated and doing the best they can with the curriculum in the shape it's in, but like all other "requirements" and their fulfillment in the university, all students get is a bad kit house with no directions. And that's frustrating and ultimately pretty useless.

Solutions: as I've suggested elsewhere, take professional education completely OUT of the undergraduate experience and put it where it used be: in the graduate schools.

More anon, perhaps. And thanks for the thoughtful and challenging remarks.

Jon Bruss said...

To return to the chem. eng. & its emergence in Germany. I think something else is afoot there, and it has to do with the Enlightenment paradigm of higher learning that came into play during, well, the Enlightenment, particularly as embodied in the work of Alexander von Humboldt (of Humboldt-Stift fame). This oversimplifies things a bit, but: the Enlightenment paradigm shift (which, by the by, had a legitimate bone to pick with contemporary higher education) shifted the focus in that phrase still preserved in the Oxford colleges about pursuit of what is "bonum et utile," (good and useful). Theretofore, the phrase had been understood as residing in the faculty of arts and what was "useful" was useful in a way that had to do with understanding HUMANITY (what it means to be human, etc.) through the traditional Greats that had come down in Western culture and through traditional higher human arts--writing, speaking, creating and playing and singing music, thinking mathematically, etc. Read Voltaire's Candide, and you can see how, at least in Voltaire's eyes, that thrust, as represented by Dr. Pangloss, had become an exercise in silliness (if not also in impressing and cornering beautiful and innocent maids).

The Enlightenment response was to locate the useful within so-called productive arts. Again, I refer to Candide: in the ideal world of El Dorado, all "academic work" is marshalled toward the production of things--techniques, gadgets, etc.--that make daily life easier. So now the "useful" gets shifted away from "useful for understanding what it is to be a human regardless of time and place and what is good, beautiful and just about human life" to "useful for harnessing nature and natural laws (outside the human) to ends that make life more pleasant for humans."

Now, thank goodness for developments like toilet paper, refrigerants, and combustion engines (I think; I wonder, though, what would I really miss in life without them?). And yet (and this is the point of humanist education), all that has done nothing to change the human condition. Plumbing, airplanes, computers, plastics, and petro fuel have not stopped humans from being deeply wicked, nor have they stopped humans from doing some really noble things. But they are accidents to the human condition. Fathers are still torn, like Agamemnon, between saving face before their peers and their child's own welfare (much as we'd like to think that's not the case). The seemingly unstoppably wise and clever still face the inscrutable, like Oedipus (much as we'd like to think that's not the case).

So the point is that Wittenberg humanism and what has resulted from Enlightenment paradigms are not at ODDS, but deal with very different underlying assumptions about what they're trying to accomplish. Is it good and noble to build safe bridges, work toward cleaner, more efficient fuels, etc.? Of course. And all of that meets certain, albeit sophisticated and hardly basic, human needs. And you need to be smart and industrious and clever to do it. But even then, all the pharm in the world cannot remove my mortality (pace Walt [Disney]) or anything else that's truly human about my condition. And that's why humanism is humanism, and that's why it's focused as it is.

So again, I'd say: let's let the engineers and the pharmacists and the vets and the M.D.s do their thing. And let's learn and understand, well and deeply, the scientific paradigm as one human response among many to the human condition, but let's not think that a smorgasbord of arts classes (English 101, Classical Myth, and American history for me; Logic 101, Chinese culture, and the Arab World for someone else) is actually going to do what the arts, in their original conception, wished to do.

Steve Gehrke said...

Jon, so much good stuff in your comments, I’m not sure where to start. I won't be able to pick up on every thought. I will note that I would not be here to carry on this conversation without modern technology as I would have died some time ago. In the end of course I will wind up in the grave sooner or later.

I think there are two (at least) separate threads here. One is which form(s) of education are supportive (or not) of the Christian faith; a second is which form of education makes one truly educated. On the second point I don’t even know how to frame the question. That’s something I’m learning from you. The former I could subdivide further into which is currently supportive, and which could be made supportive.

My primary point in posting here is to make the claim that in higher education as currently configured a scientific and engineering education IS supportive of the Christian faith and confessional Lutheranism in particular. I reject the commonly expressed view that science/engineering education is hostile to the faith. In fact, my thesis is that this is not coincidental, but inherent in the nature of engineering education in particular. Whether this is true or not I’ve long been interested in exploring further.

Perhaps this is true only coincidentally, but I think is a result of the objective nature of engineering, in that engineering curricula still follows what seems be the basic model you promote, and whose loss in the liberal arts you lament. For example, there is no debate among the faculty about what constitutes the canon of the major, which in chemical engineering has been unchanged for at least 50 years (a blink of the eye to the classics, I know, but half of the total existence of the discipline). I’m teaching my students what I was taught and how I was taught it. The only new courses in the major are electives, and hence are only incidental to the core. Even computers are seen as an adjunct technology, not as integral to education. Courses are designed all to lead to the final goal of the educated graduate. Courses are designed to be integrated with one another, and the course content and student learning in them are regularly evaluated by the faculty as to their effectiveness in achieving these goals. The cafeteria approach does NOT work in engineering, and we spend a lot of time with students in advising to be sure that students recognize that they must stay in the correct sequence. Most courses have prerequisites from the prior semester, and these are almost never waived. The education is intended the graduate to do well at whatever goal chosen, to obtain employment in a variety of fields, not necessarily engineering, and definitely not geared to a specific type of job. There is the recognition that the student (and graduate) needs to understand his or her role and contribution to society, and not just to be able to perform well on the job.

Now I know that you have more ambitious goals than to get a few classics scholars hired at research universities. Still, it remains true that engineering faculty would quickly dump the freshman English for rhetoric, and require Plato at the expense of Freud or Keynes, if a college of liberal arts were to promote that to our faculty. We DON’T want the kit house approach to education. We don’t accept it in our major, and we do have some modest restrictions on our liberal arts electives to minimize the smorgasbord approach even there. But as you note, we take what we’re offered.

Steve Gehrke said...

You may note in my arguments a certain implacable pragmatism, certainly a hallmark of an engineer. Such an attitude has both strengths and weaknesses. I recognize there are ideals out there. I recognize the need for scholars, pastors and theologians to identify these ideals. In theology this makes it easy for an engineer to accept pure doctrine from Scripture without insisting that every i be dotted and t crossed. In society, engineers are trained to help society get where it wants to go. We don’t often lift our heads from the plow to see where we’re headed, and if we do lift our heads, may not question whether that is the direction we should be headed. That’s where we need you and your discipline. But I do think you need us as well, and for more than to make your life comfortable…but then again perhaps you will persuade me otherwise. So I hope the conversation will continue.

Steve Gehrke said...

One additional comment:

If math and science are considered part of a Wittenberg education, then the 1st 2 years of engineering do largely follow this model of education, though it would appear that the humanities portion of the first two years curriculum is the least focused. In other words, the engineering part of the education is basically a 2 general education followed by a 2 year specialization.

So when you suggest that the professional courses belong in a graduate school, how many years do you think are necessary to accomplish what you see for the undergraduate program - any reason that needs to be the traditional 4 years? I'm not familiar with the details, but in modern Germany, the equivalent to an American 4 year BS in engineering is a 5 year MS degree (skips the BS), which I think is structured as a 3 year general ed portion (vestiges of Wittenberg?) followed by a 2 year specialization. How would something like that work in your vision of higher ed? Say 3 years of Wittenberg (including mathematics and basic science) and 2 years of Essen (engineering)?

I know engineering education is not your primary focus, but I am wondering exactly how you would integrate your vision with professional degrees? Would your graduates be prepared to step into the junior year of an engineering program, hence get your education in 3-4 years, and then if desired finish a BS engineering degree in two more? I could see this being feasible.

I just remembered that you sent me links to a couple other schools maybe have this kind of program, sorry haven't followed up on those yet.

Jon Bruss said...

This responds only to the last comment, above. As I envision a Wittenberg education, it would allow a student, perhaps with some "remedial" work, to enter a professional program upon completion. This is the case today, in any event: it is possible to get an English B.A. and go to med. school, but sometimes you need a few extra courses in between. So be it. As it turns out, students from, e.g., Thomas Aquinas, St. John's, and New Saint Andrews do go on to the professions: med. school, vet. school, pharm, engineering, law, business, etc. While perhaps not as direct, the humanistic argument is, of course, that it's better. Whether that's true or not is another question.

As to whether a good B.A. could be accomplished in less time. I think so. The problem here comes from the accreditation agencies who require so much class time, etc. As an interesting historical footnote, one of the early humanistic revisions of the curriculum at Wittenberg under Melanchthon provided for a great deal of flexibility in earning the B.A.: if you could do it quickly, you could do it quickly; if not, you had to take a longer time. And the determination lay in the faculty's hands. To me, this seems like a very sage thing, especially if you can remove the tuition-drive from the institution (otherwise there'd be obvious conflicts of interest, which may in part underly the notion of four years for your undergrad education here in the States). I think that innovation is something worth considering in a serious way.


Steve Gehrke said...

OK, I think I'm starting to see how this could work. Engineering is basically a 2 year program following a 2 year humanities/social sciences/math/basic science core. It is certainly true the first 2 years are taken 'smorgasbord' style. though the math and science have to be taken in sequence. Engineering faculty have been concerned that students today seem to be having more trouble than in the past integrating the courses they have taken into a unified whole. They tend to be stuck in compartmentalized thinking (each subject is independent of the others) - which is of course encouraged by the smorgasbord approach to education at the time engineering faculty get them.

A 3 year program of general (or whatever you want to call this) education followed by 2 years focus on engineering is the German model for engineering (and I think other professions), though I don't know anything specific about it. So there exists precedent for this structure.

If you are stuck with a 4 year BA for accreditation, if this BA included 2 years of math (starting with calculus), 1 year of chemistry, 1 year of physics, 1 semester of biology, an engineering BS at at state university might be finished in 2 additional years, or an engineering MS degree in 3. Personally, I think 2 years of math and 2 years of science in college would be necessary components of any degree that claims to make one well-educated, so I would think this would be eminently feasible. I do still dream of a Lutheran engineering school though (Valpo being the only one I know of and it is small, with no chemical engineering, my area).

BTW, it was interesting on NPR this AM they interviewed an author who has written a historical novel about Cicero and Julius Caesar. You will be appalled of course to know that until then I did not know they were political rivals (or even contemporaries). But the main point of the piece was that understanding this rivalry helped one understand modern politics: I understood that to be a point of yours (comparisons were made between Cicero and Obama).

Rev. John Hellwege said...

If I may introduce myself to this discussion a little late - a friend recently pointed this blog out to me, and I took a few days then to read and digest it all.


regarding your observation that there is a settled core, scope and sequence to the sciences while that is now lacking in the Liberal Arts, I tend to agree with Jon that this came about in the shift in thinking in the Enlightenment and beyond.

However, if I may take it a step further, it seems to me that much of the problem is that in modernity, since human reason and experience were elevated to the sole sources of reliable knowledge, this means that many have sought truth only in the sciences. This has been further exacerbated by the Post-Modern move to the subject. A thoroughgoing postmodern can, at least in most of his daily life, reject any objective moral "Truth," however, they cannot reject the laws of physics! As a result, to treat the humanities as something for an autonomous subject to sample works, but one cannot do this with engineering.

The real problem is that, from a Christian perspective, but I believe also from a greater humanistic perspective, this approach to the humanities is bound to fail. This can be seen in things such as how our society has treated education, and is then surprised when people at Enron, or Bernie Madoff, or Wall Street executives can then take their technical knowledge and use it to take advantage of others.

To this end, I agree that we need to re-center education in the humanities, and am very supportive of the task that Jon has put forth in this blog as a whole.