Let’s try a thought-experiment.
Imagine a college which goes well beyond St. John’s College, Hampshire or the College of the Atlantic in the experimental premise of its design. Call it Vulpine College. It has a faculty of 100, a student body of 1000. Every semester, the 1000 students write down four separate courses of study that they’d like to embark upon in the coming term. The faculty sit down and read the requests. Those that are identical or nearly so are sorted into piles: everyone who wrote “Discrete Mathematics” or “The History of the Civil War”, for example. Courses of study that are fairly close to or contained within an existing pile are added to that, say, someone who listed three or more topics belonging in a discrete mathematics class, or someone who wanted to study US history from the Jackson Administration to Reconstruction put with the Civil War bunch. Those requests that are completely idiosyncratic would be kept on their own.
Then you’d match up faculty to the student selections. Maybe you’d try some rough matching to expertise, but the central conceit here would be that Vulpine’s faculty are highly adaptable, widely experienced liberal arts intellectuals whose job it is to facilitate student learning and not to be “sages on the stage” who hold forth about a fixed body of knowledge that they believe students ought to have. They would impose no restrictions: what the students want, the students get, whether that leads to a host of one-person tutorials or one thousand people studying how to program in Python.
At this most radical extreme, what would not work? For one, no matter how much you prefer the Fox to the Hedgehog, let’s get real. Some specialization of knowledge is necessary. There can’t be many people out there who would be equally comfortable teaching Farsi, C++, ethnographic method, inorganic chemistry, Chaucer and the military history of World War I. You can teach people to think critically no matter what the topic, but no single person can teach people to think well through or within any subject. You have to know something to be a good teacher even if you redefine that role as facilitation. In a small-scale, face-to-face, intimately-scaled college, you will never have the critical mass of faculty to sustain anything this open-ended, even if you had some sort of creative “backend” solution for linking students to crowdsourced knowledge networks.
For another, even the best autodidact at the age of 18 is limited in two crucial ways. First, unless they were home-schooled or attended one of a handful of equally experimental private schools, this kind of radical agency over your own learning would be substantially alien. If Vulpine College didn’t spend time preparing its students for this kind of openness, most of them wouldn’t know what to do with it. That preparation might arguably take up one, two, or more years of study. At which point, Vulpine College has become a fairly standard liberal-arts college with an exotic culminating exercise.
Second, even skilled autodidacts need to have a certain amount of fuel shoveled into them in order to jump-start their own engines. You have to know something to know something more. A late colleague of mine tried to approach the teaching of college biology partially by asking students to recapitulate the history of inquiry that generated contemporary biological science, but even he started at a baseline at which “biological science” was already the conceptual banner under which the class convened, in which much was already known. At least some knowledge requires deferred gratification or indirect routes. An 18-year old Vulpine student who had done a bit of algebra but wrote “stochastic calculus” as a course of study would have to be told that there were some intermediary steps that just couldn’t be skipped. Once Vulpine’s faculty were in the business of saying that to students, a more standard curriculum would inevitably come into view.
Third, the infrastructure of Vulpine would either be parsimoniously reliant on digital sources or it would be improbably expensive. Even in the latter case, there’s no way Vulpine could support hands-on or experiential learning to match the potential range of student interests. You can’t have an infinite number of laboratories ready to roll out at a moment’s notice, you can’t support students looking to do situated or ethnographic work in all possible sites, you can’t have all the artistic or performing resources students might ask for.
Fourth, Vulpine could make no representations whatsoever about what its students know, do or are capable of, except that they know how to decide what they want to learn next. That’s important, but the world is not and will not be Vulpine, no matter how crowdsourced and networked it might become. Vulpine could certify almost nothing about its students, and would have almost no ‘view from above’ of their learning experiences. A corollary: individual faculty would also have a hell of a time assessing the work of students in any given course or tutorial. If you have highly individual motivations for wanting to learn something, who’s to say that you’re not meeting your goals? If I decide that learning C was the wrong language for my goals after a bad semester full of failure and switch to Python, or even abandon computer programming altogether, isn’t that a very good example of the kind of learning that Vulpine is committed to?
I could go on: Vulpine in this extreme formulation is as impossible as Borges’ Library of Babel. Like the Library, however, the act of imagining it raises the more fundamental question: if we could have it, would we want it? Entropy is a precondition of life; boundaries and limits, natural or invented, are a precondition of knowledge. Vulpine’s radical concession to the agency of learners might well end up being the antithesis of the liberal arts: saying that we should always choose what we want to know next implies that there should always be some utility to our choices. At least some of the time, we learn best through accidents and serendipities, through what other people choose for us. Vulpine is also radically amnesiac, completely ephemeral: there is no sense that it is helping to produce knowledge, only consume it. It depends on a world that approaches education and scholarship in a more traditional mode. In a way, Vulpine would be like the one family that refuses to get vaccinated for anything, hoping to free-ride off of the community’s immunizations.
Vulpine isn’t just impossible, in some sense, it’s a bad idea.
Let’s look at the opposite thought-experiment, Hedgehog College. At Hedgehog, with 1000 students and 100 faculty, all the professors are deep specialists in a single area of scholarly knowledge. Hedgehog has decided that what they have now is exactly what they will have forever: that every existing allocation of resources to every existing discipline is precisely as it ought to be. Each specialist will of course be responsive to how their field changes over time as knowledge accumulates or shifts in that field, but each specialist will also be completely autonomous in their command over their field and over the portion of the curriculum assigned to that field. In essence, every faculty member is a department of one, and is exclusively in charge of hiring their replacement. Continuity and tradition are Hedgehog’s watchword. Hedgehog is well-endowed: each member of the faculty has adequate resources to support their area of instruction and research. It has spared itself the burden of ever having to decide the comparative worth of different areas of knowledge or to make difficult judgments about resource allocation.
So what wouldn’t work in this case? Hedgehog would run into a mirror of Vulpine’s problem with its first-year students. Even in 2012, the curriculum they encounter is likely not to be the same as the education they’ve had up to that point. By 2030, 2040, 2050, that problem will be more and more acute each passing year, no matter how responsibly each faculty member represents the changing status of their own field. Just as Vulpine can’t easily create a sequence of required classes designed to prepare autodidacts, Hedgehog will have difficulty creating an integrated or shared introduction to its fixed fields of study.
Vulpine’s faculty would face the nightmare of having nothing to call their own, of having to redefine themselves every six months. Hedgehog’s faculty would seem to own their own domains, but in truth, the domains would own them. If in the course of a thirty-year career, a Hedgehog faculty member decided that they were more interested in a new field of specialization than the one they were hired to teach and study, they would in some sense be following a love that dare not speak its name: the college itself would have no way to recognize or institutionally benefit from the growth or evolution of that faculty member. No research at Hedgehog could argue for a fundamentally new field of study, or argue against an old one. At retirement, the position would go back to Go and not collect $200. At some point, it might become nearly impossible to find a replacement, or for a person practicing something like a fixed field to recognize Hedgehog’s job advertisement as something they were qualified to teach.
Hedgehog might have enough resources to deal with changes in what faculty require to carry out their research and teaching. Equity in teaching labor would be a different problem, however. Hedgehog has no way to deal with or even acknowledge evolving student demand for its offered subjects. It might well have to adopt strict quotas, caps or some other traffic control. But since it doesn’t have any way to discuss connections between subjects or overall courses of study in a coherent, evolving way, it couldn’t adjust some kind of required course sequence over time to adapt to changing student demand. That would take believing that the relations between areas of study are dynamic and having some way to describe and imagine that dynamism that is both structural and intellectual.
Hedgehog’s individual faculty could readily certify that individual students had progressed in their specialized command of the subjects offered by the college. But they couldn’t easily collectively attest to a student’s general competency, or to learning outcomes that trumped or bypassed those areas of study. The faculty would have very little way to accommodate or support a student who was engaged in a unique recombination of several areas of specialized learning because they would only be able to evaluate or advise the portion that related uniquely to their own field.
The problem for Hedgehog is that even though its individual faculty might have tremendous dynamism in their own practice and be involved in all sorts of conversations about shared or connected problems, the curricular and organizational structure of the college could never acknowledge or benefit from that dynamism and connection. Nor could that structure ever deal with or even officially recognize changes in the interests of students and the world at large. Vulpine is all driven by student agency, Hedgehog is never driven by student agency.
I think even the most erinaceinaedic intellectuals can see why Hedgehog would be more unpleasant in many ways than Vulpine. You can see Hedgehog actually existing for a while, it’s just that it would become useless and reactionary very quickly. The only way to hold the line this hard is the way that St. John’s does it: not in terms of disciplinarity and specialization, but in terms of a core body of knowledge and inquiry that you believe has eternal or unchanging value. And even St. John’s periodically tinkers with their definition of the Western tradition: it’s fairly hard to celebrate an intellectual tradition that exalts innovation, progress and skepticism while permanently rejecting any possible change in how you study and practice that tradition.
All I have to do is recite the fields of study that Hedgehog wouldn’t have if it had frozen in place in 1960 in order to properly horrify most academics. I sometimes feel there is a disconnect between the way in which many academics welcome those changes and their willingness to countenance or imagine a similar array of changes from this point forward. Part of the reason for that is that most of the changes in academia between 1960 and 2012 took place through institutional growth, whether we’re talking Swarthmore or UCLA, so new fields rarely seem to have been included at the cost of old fields. But some were, and more will be in the zero-sum future.
Excessive hedgehoggery makes it impossible to talk of change except as loss and violation, makes all planning into trauma. But a blithe fox, in love with his or her own humbuggery, tramples on the passions that sustain scholarly research and focused teaching, and doesn’t seem to understand the fineness of the line between a cosmopolitan jack-of-all-trades and a dispossessed vagabond. So how do we all stay open to the future in planning, stay provisional about our practices, without risking that dispossession? How to institutionalize restlessness and prevent rootlessness?
Here’s what I’d suggest:
1) Demand, enrollment, popularity are not sufficient reasons to shift resources, but they’re always relevant. It’s not just about giving students what they want. What students (and parents and wider publics) believe that they need from higher education is a fantastically useful map of what they already know or think they know. Every teacher should want to constantly refresh their view of that map: it’s the best way to avoid becoming an ossified hedgehog, to speak persuasively about what you know to people that you believe ought to know it.
2) “Coverage” is a weak rationale by itself in curricular planning, especially at small liberal-arts institutions. Here I skew pretty hard to Vulpine’s side of the spectrum. If the goal of a liberal arts education is improving intellectual flexibility, adaptability, open-ended problem-solving, creativity, critical thought, then any subject and all classes should work towards those goals. Coverage without very strong beliefs about canons, core knowledges, and essential traditions is just an alibi covering over “you do your thing and I’ll do mine, tend to your knitting and leave me alone”. A lot of the time contemporary faculty at many institutions want to have it both ways, rising in defense of disciplinary traditions which are subverted, discarded or harshly critiqued as soon as the venue shifts. Any assertion of the essential character of one subject ought to always require a comprehensive vision of the total universe of essential and elective subjects, but that burden is usually subcontracted out to some vague academic geist or put off as a luxuriously difficult problem that will be discussed at some always-deferred future moment.
3) Instead of coverage, what I prefer is something like heterogeneity. I am in love with the metaphor of ecological diversity to describe what the goal should be: filling all the observable intellectual niches; having a rich range of methods, epistemologies, temperaments, experiences represented within a faculty; insisting that every course of study is related or connected but in more flexible ways than a core curriculum or fixed canon allows. What you get if this is your guiding view is an institution which I think has an intrinsic beauty (as with biodiversity) but also robustly adaptable to changing circumstances.
The difference between trying to maintain a diverse intellectual ecosystem and trying to achieve coverage can be subtle, but it is sometimes pronounced. Coverage asks, “What must we have?”, and when denied, maintains that the resulting curriculum is inadequate, failed, weak. For a small institution, being driven by coverage usually means thinking of yourself as a shitty little university rather than a productively intimate college. Ecological diversity asks, “What’s another way to think about this problem?” or “What would be interesting, what would be generatively different from what we have already?”. Coverage doesn’t scale, but diversity does: it can guide decisions about a faculty of ten or ten thousand.
In a lot of places, institutional decision-making ends up producing a sort of ungainly Frankensteinian jumble of fox parts and hedgehog parts. I think there’s a different middle possible.