I feel a little confounded by this assignment, whether my aim should be to stick to core principles (or “goals”) associated with a “liberal education” in concept, or perhaps provide a more practical discussion of my views regarding its manifestation in the Furman experience. I have decided to initially address the former followed by a few remarks about the latter that I will use to preface my curricular proposal to be submitted at a later date. I introduce my comments on liberal education with the ready admission that all of the committee members who have already contributed to this discussion are far more eloquent than I, and a summary of their statements would incorporate many the points I have provided below. I also remain a work-in-progress in my thinking about this issue – many of you would not debate that point in particular!
Irrespective of its original intent and tradition in the early Academy, (apologies [. . .] for my ignorance here), the liberal arts education as we know it today as emulated by the programs that assert to provide it to the students who choose to participate in it typically embodies the following elements:
(1) a focus on the development of the whole intellect, rather than the assimilation of selected highly specialized parts. Practically, this involves exposure and evaluation in both a variety of disciplines and perhaps more importantly, a variety of perspectives. It also prescribes critical introspection, consistent with developing the capacity to place one’s beliefs, viewpoints and values within a greater global context.
(2) preparation of the scholar to enter a world in which attributes such as reasoning, problem-solving, critical thinking, communication, adaptability and the capacity to understand others with different backgrounds and experiences trump simple vocational “training” as defined by a learning only a specific set of technical skills.
Note this does not imply that there is anything inherently improper with learning applications, skills and techniques that may serve a pre-professional or career-oriented purpose, so long as this does not supplant (1) and (2). As [a colleague] has aptly pointed out, j-o-b need not be considered a four-letter word.
(3) disciplinary study that embraces depth of understanding, that dictates rich exposure to a broadly defined academic area of interest such that scholarship can be recognized, appreciated and critically evaluated on its own merits, that provides opportunities for individuals to participate as primary contributors to the greater body of knowledge, not be constrained to succumb to the role of spectators.
I hold these as basic tenets of the modern practice of a liberal arts education on the whole, common themes collectively manifested by the majority of self-proclaimed “liberal arts colleges” nationally. Enumerating and promoting such principles is central to our mission, yet there may be numerous insightful curricular models and approaches that could successfully fulfill such a vision. The promulgation of these interesting pedagogical approaches does not in itself make the Furman experience particularly distinctive from any other quality liberal arts institution that achieves the same end through a diversity of means. To be sure, basic curricular design is core to the mission of the institution, but implementation... what the faculty do with the courses they are responsible for teaching, the life experiences and knowledge they carry into to the classroom, the depth and breadth of exposure to knowledge they provide, the success to which the traits of self-reflection, perspective and critical analysis are conveyed to the student body.... would seem to be the key to the process.
It is in this sense that I believe Furman currently enjoys an outstanding academic program. In my view it is not because of the identities of the courses we offer, the disciplines they represent, the number of GER requirements they fulfill or even the specific content that is addressed, but rather because the Furman faculty by their very nature share a common vision of education that transcends discipline, and have vested themselves as a whole to using whatever courses they teach as vehicles for accomplishing that vision, whether in so-called ‘survey’ courses, HES 10, Medieval English Literature, Business Finance, Differential Equations, or Neurobiology. To be sure, I am fully supportive of any level of curricular innovation and change that improves the product and efficiency of the educational process (especially if implementing such change stimulates enthusiasm and motivation among the greater faculty body), and I have already seen several very interesting proposals and suggestions that may in indeed serve that purpose. Yet, in the end I suspect our graduate “products” are much more strongly influenced by their curricular and cultural experiences outside the classroom and our passion and presentation within the classroom than the manner in which material is subdivided and organized into bytes of information or illustration.
In my view it is critically important that in this process, Furman both recognize and strive to maintain her unique character. I hold this to be a fundamental quality of any outstanding college or university; Williams does not want to be Amherst, and Amherst has no need to emulate Colgate, or Harvard, or Furman. Through the outstanding contributions of generations of Furman faculty, students and administrators, we have established an identity, steeped in a tradition and heritage that we must at the least recognize and acknowledge so that we maintain an appropriate context of our own. The students we attract are highly intelligent and well trained, yet clearly demographically distinct from peer institutions located in other educational centers such as the Northeast; this may not change remarkably in years to come, and in my view need not be the primary goal. We are nationally recognized for excellence across the liberal arts and sciences, and refreshingly unique in student body size, shape, location and function among the vast majority of our liberal arts “peers”. We offer experiences often expressed as “life-changing” in numerous and diverse study abroad programs subscribed to by students from all disciplines; we offer unique opportunities for engagement with the world beyond Furman while maintaining our liberal arts values through venues such as the Washington Experience, the former Biosphere 2 program or the Medical Ethics program; we have developed an engaged learning effort that blends scholarly study, undergraduate research and internships into a program arguably unrivaled by any peer liberal arts college; we have musical performance opportunities and traditions unparalleled by most other four-year colleges; we have regular opportunities to engage nationally-competitive Division I scholarship athletes in our classrooms and watch them develop and flourish intellectually as well as physically; we have a 12-8-12 calendar that despite its advantages and disadvantages is at its core uniquely ours (no laughing out loud, please).
Have I yielded to the view of the Patriot rather than the Cosmopolitan? Perhaps. But it seems paramount that in the best sense of the liberal arts tradition, a sense of who we are and what we do in relation to the academic world in which we live be acknowledged at the outset of embarking on a course for where we’re going. Whatever the outcome of our deliberations and the final format of curricular revision, it is my hope that we consider carefully how we moved from the ranks of a small, Southern Baptist, somewhat selective, predominantly local college with two academic buildings and virtually no endowment to one recently ranked among the top 40 nationally (even with a meager endowment versus many on that list), noting that all of this change has occurred since the last curricular/calendar revision. As we redesign and re-engineer those components of our academic program that we agree can be made to work better and more efficiently, we should conscientiously anticipate and endeavor to preserve that which makes us in the end.... fundamentally Furman.
Posted by love at
September 17, 2004 10:00 AM
Discuss this proposal in the forum, or leave a comment below!