Go Big Or Don’t Go

There are folks–oh, say, Matt Yglesias for example–who can’t seem to resist being prompted to rush to the spectator stands at Thunderdome when an academic department or discipline has been picked out by managerialist bean-counters as the esoteric waste of resources du jour. But this is quintessential concern trollery. A German Studies Department at the University of Virginia is not the cause of low graduation rates at a non-selective branch campus of an underfunded public university system or community college. If the issue is poor retention and graduation of the most academically underprepared students in higher education, and the costs that they and their families incur, let’s talk about that. That’s a different conversation, and it’s one that has been going on for quite a while.

If the issue is, “What subjects should a liberal arts curriculum have? How many faculty positions should there be in an institution? What should be a major or a department?” you have to talk about those questions comprehensively. Letting yourself be led around by the nose or your own shoot-from-the-hip perceptions of what’s important may have a shits-and-giggles pleasure to it but it would a lousy, autocratic way to actually make decisions about resource allocation.

You have to start with an overall philosophy. If your first principle is, “The curriculum should privilege practical knowledge that can be put to immediate use in existing careers, and therefore be shaped by the declared needs of employers”, then ok. Recognize where that view leads you: most likely to some kind of vocational, pre-professional or trade school. It’s a viable approach, it exists in the world. You can hybridize this strategy with a liberal arts approach, aiming at creating “well-rounded” professionals, and that also can work. Or not. The downside to either is that the education on offer is narrow and highly instrumental, and that its content is largely set by organizations and interests outside of the educational institution itself. In a stable trade that has fairly straightforward technical requirements and a good economic outlook, this can make a lot of sense. (Let me know how many of those you think there are: my sense is, ‘Not many’.)

If you agree from the outset that an overly instrumental, externally-driven set of priorities is mostly the wrong way to go about designing and staffing an undergraduate curriculum, if you support some version of the liberal arts ideal, then you have a much harder and necessarily perpetually unfinished job ahead of you. Tenure complicates (and possibly enriches) your task somewhat in that many of your decisions about staffing will have lasting effect for twenty or thirty years.

But it’s crucial to think about the big picture first, last and always in imagining what you have to have in a liberal arts institution. No allocation of resources makes sense in isolation. Or perhaps the right way to put it is that all allocation of resources make sense in isolation. Almost all disciplines, departments, programs and specializations can provide a narrative about how they are essential and eternal.

In my view, they’re all right in some sense and completely wrong in another. There is, for example, no subject which cannot be taught in a way that is actively and aggressively opposed to the liberal arts ideal. Philosophy, history, biology, economics, math, classics, linguistics: you name it, if it’s taught as an exclusive stand-alone subject, a self-justified discipline, an isolate pursued in monastic purity, it’s against the liberal arts. Which means for one that when you’re making decisions about resource allocations, focusing on the subject can be a red herring. You don’t judge disciplines as a Platonic form. You judge them in usage, in practice, by actual people in actual departments. There is no subject in a liberal arts institution which is intrinsically obscure or forbidding. Any subject can be made relevant, powerful and transformative in the hands of the right professor, the right department, the right curriculum. So resource allocation is as much about the adroit management of people, about the cultivation of possibility, as it is about abstract metrics. Everything can be obscure. Everything can be vitally relevant.

You can solve the problem of the unlimited openness of such an approach with a core curriculum. The problem with a core curriculum is that it tries to dictate what must be earned, to invest authority on the deserving and undeserving alike. A core curriculum only works, in my view, if it’s strong, comprehensive and philosophically coherent. Adopted in a half-hearted way, they’re usually just a la carte exercises in institutional politics. A coherent core curriculum is a statement about what everyone must know: you should be able to justify it in the absence of any given faculty, any given institution, any given group of students. If there’s one thing wrong inside and outside of academia, it’s people who argue for a core curriculum only when it suits their immediate and self-interested needs. You are either in or out on this point. If there are essential subjects, you have to stick to that view consistently, and argue it in your classes and outside of them. Canons aren’t just weapons for sieges.

If you don’t have a core curriculum, and leave it largely to students to find their own path through their studies, you still have to consider where the traffic is. Our students, our communities, our publics have maps of what they think matters and what they think doesn’t matter. When you’re on the map in the latter neighborhood, it’s your job to get the world to beat a path to your door. When you’re in a crowded neighborhood that everyone wants to live in, it’s still your job to make your place special, enduring, meaningful, to not just coast on unearned adoration. But no matter how hard faculty and staff work, those maps direct the traffic. So at least some resources have to be allocated accordingly, just as in the real world: when people congregate, there’s only so much you can do to route them elsewhere. In the end, the key metric is, “How many students can you accommodate, and how small do you want or need your classes to be”? That’s determined by your total resources. After that, it’s a matter of shifting as many as you can from the overcrowded neighborhoods to the underused ones.

Changes in what we know and how we know it matter too. I’ve said before here that my own preference in curricular planning is less for coverage, which I think is a fool’s game whether you’re big or small, and more for heterogeneity. Especially in a smaller institution, I’d rather have fifty people doing fifty different things with fifty different methods than five groups of ten doing five things with five methods–as long as they were all prepared to talk with and understand each other, and teach students to do the same.

Continuity matters. What you have at any given moment, if everyone takes the liberal arts ideal seriously, is as good as anything else. That doesn’t help when there’s a question about what to change when someone retires or resigns, but it does mean that grass-is-greener arguments are always misguided and sometimes malicious. A subject that seems dead is just waiting for the right person to bring it to life. Or the right curricular design: more than a few departments in academia hurt themselves by clinging to a forbidding or hostile structure for a program of study. If it were practical, with every single vacancy at a liberal arts college, I’d write an ad that says “Interesting intellectual wanted, must be able to teach, must have an area of specialized competency but also be interested in other subjects and disciplines.” And then we’d sit down and sift through fifty thousand applications–which is why no one could really do it that way. (Hey, St. John’s, how do you handle your hiring?) But for the same reason, you could just as easily say that what you have is just fine, if you have enough intellectual diversity, if what you have is being approached in the right spirit and the problem of traffic management is considered as appropriate.

I’m very open in the way I think about these choices. There are more constrained ways to approach making these decisions. But the worst of all worlds is to be manipulated into throwing stones at some flavor-of-the-month discipline that the news cycle has thrown up as a self-evidently luxurious and pointless activity. What that usually involves is a kind of back-door vocationalism, a not-brand-X utilitarianism that really amounts to nothing more than whatever intellectual prejudices come to hand. Every discipline has its Henry Ford who will declare it bunk. Every discipline has its snake-oil salesman that can insidiously afflict it upon millions as an unwanted hurdle in their daily lives. And every discipline has its messiah who can show countless students how they were waiting all along to think about life in a new way.

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12 Responses to Go Big Or Don’t Go

  1. Peter Blitstein says:

    This makes so much sense, and yet it leaves open one fundamental problem (admittedly, not one that you took on here, but, it seems to me, at the heart of the UVa debacle): what is the process by which (through which?) these sorts of conversations happen and decisions made. I think many institutions (whether SLACS or universities) lack the processes and mechanisms to make coherent decisions about the big picture and the result is either institutional inertia (with internal logrolling) or external impositions from boards, parents, donors, etc.

  2. Great post! Could you say more (or provide links if you’ve covered this already) about how you define “the liberal arts ideal”? Thanks!

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, the process is the trick. We do it through extensive faculty participation in a consultative process, which as you might imagine is time-consuming and has become markedly less pleasant to be involved in since we’ve hit an era of more limited resources. I think that’s the best way to do it, though–Sullivan’s “consultative buy-in”. I wouldn’t pretend that faculty are always willing, here or anywhere, to participate in the most generous spirit, but even when they’re defending their own immediate interests, they are going to see more of the big picture than any other group of stakeholders.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    The liberal arts ideal is, well, a big head-ache to define. We’re working on that now at Swarthmore. I think it’s fair to say that a lot of the common definitions of the concept in academia are somewhat threadbare now. I should put together a sort of “working document” for the blog to set out my own view. I think the idea begins with the proposition that the road to being an educated person is by necessity indirect and highly individualized, that a liberal arts undergraduate experience is best imagined as a well-supplied toybox or workbench.

    There are other definitions that pull in different diretions , I think more towards a core curriculum, among them the historically-based one that derives from the Greek-derived trivium (grammar, rhetoric, logic).

  5. Gavin Weaire says:

    “…you should be able to justify [a given core curriculum] in the absence of any given faculty, any given institution, any given group of students.”

    This I don’t agree with at at all (and it doesn’t fit with stuff that you usually say about the value of heterogeneity in higher education). I think it’s perfectly reasonable to argue for the local value of a particular core for a particular institution, and not as something that should apply to all institutions everywhere.

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    I think the test of the coherence of a strong core curriculum is that you think it applies with some universality, that these are the things you think every student must know. You’re not just arguing that they should know those things because, well, you happen to have some people around who teach those subjects. Sure, you might not think that every institution could do it the way you’re doing it–but the strength of a place like St. John’s lies in part in their conviction that they’re doing it the right way and that their students should be recognized by everyone else as the products of a consistent, philosophically strong vision of what education should be. The philosophy precedes the faculty and endures beyond them.

    Which, by the way, is why I think core curricula are almost always a mistake. As I said, I think you have to persuade students as you teach about the importance of what they’re learning. That’s what makes learning an enduring part of your life, it’s what teaches students to teach themselves. Curricula with strong requirements and few options allow faculty to circumvent that need to persuade except in the rare cases where they recognize the need to both require and persuade. Authority-driven curricula have a lifespan no longer than graduation, unless you’ve managed to so thoroughly indoctrinate students that they willingly march in lockstep for the rest of their lives.

    Weak core curricula are usually just attempts at traffic management that disguise themselves as philosophical statements about what people ought to know. It’s better that they just be explained as traffic management.

  7. Gavin Weaire says:

    Just to push back: surely you have to acknowledge some limits to this argument. Reductio ad absurdum time – would you say that a core curriculum in an American institution would have to defend a US history requirement as something that people in Ireland should know?

    Or (if Irish third-level institutions worked like this, which they don’t*) an Irish history in Ireland should be justified as something that everyone in the world should know? (There are concrete reasons, that have to do with “not killing people,” that make a nuanced and multidimensional knowledge of Irish history somewhat more important in an Irish context than in America.)

    And once one admits that context matters, then one can’t get out of the difficult question of deciding how much should it matter.

    *However, primary and secondary education in Ireland does work like this, so the same arguments crop up at a different level. For that matter, they apply within disciplines – would you really feel that every history department should approach the task of setting requirements for the major as a matter of arriving at the sequence and spectrum of offerings that every department should have?

  8. Timothy Burke says:

    Remember, this is one of the reasons I don’t favor core curricula, even well-conceived and strongly structured ones, precisely because I don’t think they travel well, because I don’t think there is much that’s universal.

    However, if I were going to make the case, I’d distinguish between core curricula that argue that particular national subjects need to know certain things and core curricula that argue that all modern subjects in liberal societies need to know certain things. The first view sometimes crops up in cultural conservatism in the US and elsewhere, that the purpose of core curricula is to produce some form of national unity, a shared national tradition. That view certainly wouldn’t advocate that people in different nations should have the same core instruction, quite the opposite.

    The second view is going to have an easier time of it when it is dealing with subjects that already posit themselves as implicitly or explicitly universal, where there is strong internal disciplinary consensus about what is essential and non-essential. When it gets to literature, history, anthropology, and so on, it’s going to have a harder go of it. Probably the best you could do is either argue for a sort of Arnold “best that has been thought and said” approach, a kind of core-as-greatest-hits-for-all-humanity or argue for some sort of “these are the histories and cultural works which have had the greatest measurable influence on the present for everyone on the planet“.

  9. Gavin Weaire says:

    I suppose some of my disagreement here is that I’m simply starting from different premises somewhere.

    For a start, I think I’m coming at this from the perspective of someone who went through a completely different system in which all four years of university education were devoted to a single disciplinary area.*

    So from my perspective, distinctions between “core curricula” and other ways to structure degree requirements are variations on a basically similar American liberal arts-y, general education model. There’s a wide underlying consensus that “normal” college should involve exposure to different subject areas. St John’s and Evergreen State are in complete agreement here.

    So the “real” underlying question seems to me to be, for the moment, remarkably uncontroversial – what one argues about are the exact details. Plenty of room to argue about those, but one needs to keep in mind the enormous number of different possible combinations.

    “Core curriculum” is at best a useful shorthand for a range of more restrictive options. It’s not necessarily a useful shorthand – I’m not actually fond of it at all -and its use shouldn’t be allowed to reduce what is in fact a complex array of different interacting choices into A and B.

    What we’re really talking about is, I think, requirements to graduate, and every institution has them, and therefore has to make some choices. One can’t, I think, talk about this as a matter of “traffic management,” because that presumes that one has already answered the questions of overall direction and flow – which is what we’re really talking about in the first place when discussions of core curricula and the like arise.

    Therefore, it doesn’t matter whether one wants to have a “core curriculum” or not. You’re committed to having some requirements to graduate, no matter what, and you have to justify them. Any argument that you have justify a core curriculum in universal terms needs to contain some explanation of why it stops at core curricula, and doesn’t apply to requirements to graduate in general.

    On the other hand, if one does, as I do, see American universities and colleges as largely offering variations on a similar model, one can view it as quite appropriate for those variations to be suited to the particular institution. This includes variations in whether or not they have “core curricula,” and what those core curricula contain.

    Given the sheer number of possible ways one could put all this together, it seems misguided to me to believe that one could arrive at some universal “right answer,” and even more misguided to suppose that there would be one in the first place. There are bound to be trade-offs here, and a set of requirements that does one thing well will do another thing badly.

    *This oversimplifies how the Irish system of third-level education functions, but it’s an accurate picture of the specific part that I went through.

  10. I teach a class at BMC (a freshman seminar) on the history of the liberal arts, and I get my students to think through and articulate what *they* think a liberal arts education is, and why it’s important (if it’s important). So, in addition to covering the trivium and quadrivium and monastic education and early universities, we also look at the curricula at places like St. John’s, Columbia, Harvard, Amherst, etc. I’ve only taught it once, but my students seemed to feel strongly that a liberal arts education is one in which they would achieve competency in several different areas (foreign language, a major, basic lab science practice, written and oral expression), but more importantly (to them) they would graduate with the ability to formulate larger questions, the tools to figure out how to answer those questions, and a sense of intellectual adaptivity. I’m teaching it again in the fall and I’m going to have them re-write BMC’s mission statement.

  11. Brian Howell says:

    I love this post and agree whole-heartedly. In these comments, though, I am confused if the “core curriculum” is being conflated with THE core curriculum. That is, it strikes me that a key purpose of a core curriculum at a particular university is that student at that institution will have a common intellectual experience around which to have substantive conversation. The specifics of this core can, and should, be contextually specific, not only to the country/culture, but to the institutional mission. And Alchemist, I hope your syllabus is on line, because I like the sound of this course you’re doing.

  12. Gavin Weaire says:

    I’ll let Dr. Burke speak for himself, but my sense is that the distinction that (I think) you’re draw between “the” and “a” core curriculum is more-or-less what he and I are disagreeing about.

    His position (if I understand it properly, which I may not) is that espousing “a” core curriculum commits you to arguing that it should be “the” core curriculum – that there can be no intellectually honest distinction between the two. My position is closer to yours, although not identical.

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