07 March, 2010

Beyond Rhetoric

The cry of alarm can be heard once again. In its recent "Special Report: The Liberal Arts," the Chronicle of Higher Education provides a series of articles that provide the latest snapshot of what has become a long and rather exhausting post mortem of the liberal arts in American higher education.

In one of the articles in this series, "For the Liberal Arts, Rhetoric Is Not Enough," the president of Ursinus College presents his institution's efforts to emphasis the liberal arts on campus. The article can be found here (subscription required):


While providing an informercial for his college, President Strassburger has much reason to celebrate. In short, his college has worked to "craft a set of programs that made all the virtues that we claim for liberal education clear and transparent." They have found three primary ways of accomplishing this:

1. Their faculty has "developed a two-semester program required of all first-year students, what became known as the "Common Intellectual Experience."
2. All first year students live together in six residence halls as a way to foster intelligent discourse among the cohort.
3. Their faculty created an "Independent Learning Experience" that required every student to do "significant undergraduate research, study abroad in certain programs, student-teach, or have an academically legitimate internship."

President Strassburger's assessment data suggests that if students feel "their concerns about how to live a meaningful life are taken seriously, they will respond."

Spot on, as the British say. But what are the lessons for Lutheran higher education?

First, these efforts suggest the importance of faculty taking their vocations seriously. On a micro-level, what if faculty, as they design courses, intentionally allow the texts, values, and outcomes of a liberal education to shape the development of their syllabi and daily course content? What if they mentor students and advise them to pursue a liberal education? What if they, in their personal reading and research, grow themselves as students of the liberal arts? On a macro-level, what if faculty committees (Development, Curriculum, Assessment, and Uffda, how the list goes on!) pursue a liberal arts agenda in their committee work and use those values as the standard against which they measure their work?

Second, a Lutheran institution, grounded in Holy Scripture and the church's symobls, guided by the Church's tradition, has an embarrassment of riches to share with students. If we want to help students in a serious endeavor to consider "how to live a meaningful life," then we certainly have no reason not to orient them to the gifts Christ has given his people.

Even if a majority of faculty do not agree on these values or concerns, a concerted effort by those who love the liberal arts can make a tremendous difference in the lives of individual students and can carve out a corner in any institution in which those values survive, and by God's grace, thrive.


Peter H said...


In a post back a few weeks, entitled Productivity , you ended with the question: How can we best work to influence and educate our fellow Lutherans about the benefits of this kind of education?

It seems that President Strassburger offers at least part of an answer to this question.

As a student, who once would have defined the "liberal arts" at least as abysmally as the focus group that President Strassburger referenced, I must say that the single most important aspect of my appreciation for the liberal arts was a professor taking seriously his responsibility as a mentor. From the "other side of the desk" In my experience there was nothing more influential than this. In a typical class, meeting 3 hours a week, there is only so much that a professor is able to do. By developing a "mentoring" relationship, however, a professor is able to illuminate why what we are looking at in any given class is so important, and how it fits into the "bigger" questions that are the perpetual interest of the liberal arts.

I would argue that a mentor program (formal or otherwise) is essential. What President Strassburger offers is one way to attempt to get students into the program in the first place, which is clearly an extremely important question. But as he (at least tacitly) points out, this question is never independent from the question: “What the students will take out of the program?”

So how does one get students to recognize the “value” both before they are in the program, and while they are there? In your opinion does President Strassburger offer a viable option?

Matthias Flacius said...

If I could teach a class with less than 25 students I could be more intentional about primary source readings and writing.

Erik Ankerberg said...

I have to applaud President Strassburger's efforts, as well as the heavy lifting done by the faculty. Of course, I'm interested to peek behind the curtain of the "Common Intellectual Experience" course and see if they're reading Tolstoy or Kristeva.

I think the discreet efforts by individual faculty to engage "liberal" studies as they mentor students, prepare courses, and pursue their own research and writing are the foundation of any "success" that we will see. Those small, often unrecognized activities reap real and lasting benefits and change students' lives for the better. Past the department level, I think it's difficult in this world we inhabit to find agreement among academics that a liberal education provides lasting benefits. It can certainly be done, but it requires a great deal of discussion, negotiation, and dare I say, humility.

Carl said...

Great website! Fascinating discussions. I look forward to exploring more of these posts.

I am wholeheartedly and passionately committed to the liberal arts. From my own undergraduate days to my first academic position, I've always thought the liberal studies approach superior; I've certainly been blessed with mentors along the way who impressed such ideas upon me.

Although I no longer teach undergraduate students, my classroom approach remains the same: primary texts only, focused discussion, and learning across the disciplines. In my present position, I was also given the opportunity to head up a major curriculum revision of our required church history and theology courses. I integrated these courses, anchored them in primary texts, and added forays into art, music, literature, and other aspects of material history. While this approach fits my personality well, each faculty member brings different strengths and interests to the courses. Not every one is comfortable moving from theology to history to art/architecture. After two years of teaching and tweaking these courses, I think they are a great success. These are, however, the only courses in our required curriculum where a deliberate emphasis is placed on primary texts.