If I have learned anything during my role in student government at Concordia, it is that the foundation of the American liberal arts college is shifting. Portending doom for colleges is in vogue as of late, so let me be more specific: things look differently for liberal arts students today. Across the country, undergraduate students are morphing into an intellectually homogenous bunch. Business and other explicitly pre-professional fields reign over other fields. Even our nation’s elite colleges have seen drop offs in the humanities in favor of other fields – some would argue primarily economics. As particular subjects crowd out others, we lose the diversity of perspectives that the liberal arts college has supported for so long.
The culprit, I think, is the rise of colleges as two-word certifiers. For many students, college has become a transaction, not a transformation. We spend four years earning our sets of two words on our resume: a [sexy, pre-professional department] major with a [other sexy, pre-professional department] minor. Too often, this is an effort to prove to the Real World/Job Market that we are worth hiring. Majors and minors serve to represent a student’s knowledge and expertise in a field. In this context, the ascendancy of economics and business studies makes sense: spend four years to certify that you are knowledgeable about the Real World (silly Humanities!) and are thus employable (the reality might be different). Until students and colleges get better about articulating their studies, the two-word certifiers will reign supreme.
I want to take time this week to just effuse about how cool of a step integrative learning is in developing the 21st Century liberal education. A recent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education details Augustana College’s efforts to promote liberal learning on its campuses. Much like Concordia, Augustana is tackling integrating classroom time and extracurricular time, as detailed in the beautifully-titled “Now, Everything has a Learning Outcome.” Augustana has developed a guarantee: by the time a student graduates from Augustana, he or she will develop Disciplinary Knowledge, Critical Thinking and Information Literacy, Quantitative Literacy, Collaborative Leadership, Intercultural Competency, Communication Competency, Creative Thinking, Ethical Citizenship, and Intellectual Curiosity. This is, in my opinion, awesome.
The ideal of the liberal education is a transformational one: a liberal arts college molds students into citizens. This is a harder story to tell in the age of the Web 3.0 and Great Recession. Integrative learning, like that proposed by Augustana and Concordia, seeks to articulate this opportunity beyond those two words. Boiling the Concordia experience down to two words is a trap even I have fallen into. If we are going to quantify integrative learning, the story of the Concordia experience must include that seven out of ten of our graduates are working to make the world a better place. I believe that combining this fact with the integrative learning efforts started this summer can stymie two-word certifiers and bring more diversity of thought back into our public sphere. Building up, not tearing down, will pave the path forward.