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Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Liberal Education

We are the College of Liberal Arts, but the University of Minnesota also has Liberal Education requirements for all students. What we call liberal education other institutions call general education or distribution requirements, but whatever you call these requirements, almost all institutions have them. These requirements effectively spell out the kinds of things that an institution believes an educated person should know or understand. Here at the U, these are split into core (disciplinary groupings such as mathematical thinking, literature, history, etc.) and themes (subject matter groupings such as the environment or technology and society).

Our current liberal education system has been in place for roughly 25 years and was last adjusted about a decade ago. Provost Hanson has requested that it be examined. Should it remain as is? Be tweaked? Be replaced entirely? Clearly, any substantial change will require an enormous amount of effort, and just as clearly, the College of Liberal Arts will be deeply involved in that effort. Somewhat more ominously, colleges could be seriously affected financially by changes, so you better believe that there are a lot of eyes focused on this. And just to add some spice to the sauce, we need a liberal education system that we can articulate with the Minnesota State system via the Minnesota Transfer Curriculum, which is also to be studied for revision.

What does it mean to have a college education. Is it breadth or depth? Is it knowledge or skills or attitudes or ways of knowing? Is it check the boxes or integrative?  Is it exploratory or prescriptive? Is it foundation for citizenship? There are many valid answers and thus many valid systems, but the issue is what are our (UMNTC’s) answers to these questions.

All these liberal education systems can be viewed on a variety of axes:
  • Simple in implementation to Complex
  • Promoting exploration to promoting applicability in major
  • Individualistic to prescriptive
  • Susceptible to “gaming” or not
  • Check box to integrative
  • Administrative overhead: Streamlined to bureaucratic
  • Articulation with other systems: simple to complicated

In principle, everyone wants simple in concept, not susceptible to gaming, minimum bureaucracy, and simple to articulate (for transfer students). People differ philosophically on individuality, integrative, and exploration/application.

For my part, I have opinions, but at the same time, I am conflicted. I like exploration, but students can spin their wheels exploring and everyone is pushing for shorter times to degree. I am very much attracted to systems that integrate various ways of knowing, but systems of this sort can be overly complex (particularly in an institution as large as ours). I have even seen some promise in “core” curricula, but I worry about being overly prescriptive. I told you I was conflicted, and I know that working this out will be a long, hard slog. My expectation is that we will wind up with something that is either very similar to what we have, or radically different; intermediate changes seem like too much work for too little gain.  

The Provost’s office held an open forum on liberal education last week, and UGE (and CLA generally) had good representation. There will be at least one more open forum (Thursday, Feb 23, in the North Star Ballroom at the St. Paul Student Center), and potentially additional forums after that. I encourage all of you to think deeply about liberal education and to participate in the discussions as they continue. This is a foundational service to our students.