Tool Kit Resources: Campus Models & Case Studies

Luther College Students Share Experiences and Develop as Ethical Thinkers and Writers in the Paideia Program

Luther College Students Share Experiences and Develop as Ethical Thinkers and Writers in the Paideia Program


Editor’s Note: The following is a chapter from AAC&U’s forthcoming book, Rising to the LEAP Challenge: Case Studies of Integrative Pathways to Student Signature Work. The book, which was cowritten by Wilson Peden, Sally Reed, and Kathy Wolfe, will be published in the winter of 2017.

By Sally Reed

“Paideia is the ancient Greek word for ‘education.’ The word implies both formal and informal learning, as well as the culture that is generated when such learning is held in common.”

This statement appears in the first-year Paideia 111 Reader all students receive when they arrive at Luther College, a private liberal arts institution with 2,400 undergraduate students located in Decorah, Iowa. It expresses the philosophical underpinning of the core academic program; the name “Paideia” is Luther’s recognition “that life in community depends on centuries of shared wisdom.” 

The Creation of the Paideia Program

The Paideia curriculum consists of a two-semester sequence for first-year students (Paideia 111–112) that centers on enduring questions and an upper-level course (Paideia 450), taken in the junior or senior year, that focuses on ethical choices.

 Luther College has required an interdisciplinary course for all first-year students since the fall of 1964. “The original planners envisioned a program that would correlate the teaching of literature and writing with other humanities disciplines,” says Rebecca Sullivan, the Paideia program’s director. “It went through a couple of different iterations.”

In 1977, the first-year program was reshaped into Paideia, an interdisciplinary two-semester course that, at the time, examined case studies from ancient Greece, sixteenth-century Europe, and modern China, and included the study of issues related to America’s diversity.

“Then in 1983, Luther received a ‘revitalization grant’ from the National Endowment for the Humanities,” Sullivan adds, “and a challenge grant that gave us the opportunity to solidify the first-year program." The challenge grant grew to be the endowment that has funded the first-year program ever since. “We also have a publication that comes out twice a year, a lecture series, and sabbatical grants. It supports the writing director, as well as our writing center, a Paideia director, and administrative assistance.” 

During the 2010–11 academic year, an internal review of the program led to the current first-year introduction to liberal arts. 

The First-Year Paideia

Today, Paideia 111–112 is a two-course, two-semester sequence. It is a “team-taught, interdisciplinary program with a common syllabus,” says Storm Bailey, associate professor of philosophy and a former director of the program. “It is in the first year for two semesters. All students take it.” The course has a common syllabus—students in every section read the same texts, selected by the Paideia faculty under a common theme. Discussions are organized around such common questions as “What does it mean to be human?” “What can we know?” “How can we know our understanding is reliable?” Classes also emphasize writing, critical thinking, and reading.

The assigned texts are pulled from various disciplines and traditions—European, African, Asian, and American—so that students are exposed to different perspectives. Material spans ancient times through the present, and includes the visual arts, music, history of science, literature, history, philosophy, and Africana studies. “The interdisciplinary nature of first-year Paideia 111–112, Enduring Questions, makes it [beginning] signature work,” says Sullivan. “It truly is an introduction to the liberal arts that asks students to engage in critical inquiry, frequent writing, and information literacy—including a first-year project where students take the lead in inquiry-driven research, applying and demonstrating the skills they have acquired.”

The faculty meets weekly for its own discussion about teaching different texts and writing pedagogy. “Not all faculty members are involved in the Paideia program, but all departments have been represented,” said Sullivan, who is also an associate professor of library and information studies.

Kylie Romeo graduated in 2016 with a major in accounting and a minor in communications studies. When she took Paideia 111, she read The Return of Martin Guerre. Her class also watched an opera and read a translated Japanese play. Students read current books as well as the allegory of the cave from Plato’s Republic. “You attack the theme, ‘What does it mean to be human?’ from so many different angles,” she says.

Paideia 112, the second course of the year-long sequence, is taken during the second semester of the freshman year. Students embark on a research project focused on how to integrate, demonstrate, and apply learning and acquired skills. Students select their research topics in areas related to their instructors’ expertise. These have included bioethics, the Cold War, Jefferson’s West, witchcraft, animal rights, film history, German Romanticism, and the blues.

Romeo believes that Paideia 111 and 112 improved her writing ability. “We had to write a lot of essays,” she says, adding that she learned how to make a point and support it with enough details. “Writing is the most valued skill I have gotten from the Paideia program,” she notes. 

Paideia 450

Later, all students at Luther take Paideia 450, Ethical Choices. Each iteration of Paideia 450 is taught by instructors from two different departments (tenure-line professors from nearly all departments participate) and taken during either the junior or senior year. Students focus on ethical problems in such courses as Anthropology and Public Health, The Color of Change: Black Intellectual Thought and Social Transformation in America, and Food and Environment. Sullivan uses the language of signature work to describe Paideia 450. Ideally, the issues discussed in these courses “are important to the students, as well as significant challenges to society,” says Sullivan. “Paideia 450 prepares students to work with ‘unscripted questions,’ to address complex societal problems—problems where the right answer is unknown—in their personal lives, communities, and future workplaces.”

Romeo, a basketball player, studied sports ethics, and in class discussed moral dilemmas within various athletic realms. Students debated particular decisions that coaches or players had made and studied concepts such as honesty, integrity, and loyalty. Romeo completed a research paper at the end of the semester and participated in a group presentation related to the question of whether everyone in youth sports should get medals, or whether children should instead be taught about winning and losing.

Romeo notes that, of course, she took other classes to meet graduation requirements. And while those other courses didn’t focus specifically on ethics, “throughout all of Luther you really do get that perspective. Even in accounting. We talked about the Enron case and how in the real world you might feel pressure and what kind of steps you can take to prevent that. It opens your eyes to situations you may face in the real world.”

During Luther’s January term, some students take a Paideia 450 course on campus, while others opt to complete their Paideia 450 course through a study abroad experience. Recent trips have been based around such courses as Borders, Migration, and Identity in the Dominican Republic and Haiti; Stability and Change in Vietnam; and People and Parks: Pastoralism and Conservation in East Africa. “The trips include writing-intensive work and also have an ethical component,” says Sullivan.

Senior Project

Finally, all students at Luther complete senior projects in their majors, “giving students an opportunity to integrate their learning in that discipline,” says Sullivan. The senior project is a student-driven scholarly study or artistic work that is developed with guidance from a faculty advisor over the course of a semester or a year. Administrators at Luther state that the scaffolding for the senior project actually begins with Paideia 111–112, laying a foundation that is built upon through interdisciplinary study in the Paideia 450 course. Sullivan notes that “there isn't a formal curricular connection between Paideia and the senior project. But the reading, writing, critical thinking, and research skills that students acquire in Paideia are applied in the independent senior project.”

Paideia’s Impact

Bailey believes the beauty of Luther's Paideia program rests with the common syllabus. “The fact is that all our first-year students are doing things in different ways, in medicine or music, for example. But they are all doing this introduction to the liberal arts. They are all taking the same writing course. It makes a difference that faculty knows that every student who walks in the classroom has read the allegory of the cave, The Apology, or The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. This common intellectual experience is a terribly important thing for a residential college. It plays a crucial role in the formation of our community as an academic community.”

Romeo agrees. “One thing I also value about Paideia doesn’t have to do with academics. It is a great socialization tool because all of the first-year students have to take the course. It is almost as if it’s a conversation starter between people. Even if you are not in the same class, you know they are reading the same material. They are struggling with the same things and the same questions. It is a really great way to have everyone chugging along together. It is a community in which you are able to bounce ideas off of each other and meet new people.”     

Paideia’s impact on student learning is assessed at both the 111–112 and 450 levels. Beyond assignments and course grades, Sullivan notes that for Paideia 111–112, students also answer questions about their achievement of learning goals and the content. They assess their own study habits and general experience. This is used for planning purposes. In addition, she says that the dean’s office assesses specific items related to all-college learning goals such as a student’s understanding of the historical and cross-cultural diversity of people and societies or using appropriate strategies to solve problems or address issues. “In Paideia 450, the dean’s office might look at whether students were writing with clarity or analyzing sources or data critically,” she adds.

Students are also asked to connect their Paideia learning to college-wide outcomes. “We do ask students to report on their learning in relation to the goals for student learning in the all-college curriculum,” says Sullivan. In 2015, 77 percent of students in Paideia 111–112 agreed or strongly agreed that the courses “developed my ability to write with clarity and coherence”; 75 percent agreed or strongly agreed that the courses “deepened my understanding of questions central to the human condition in different time periods and places.”

Luther also surveys alumni, and Bailey notes that “very often surveys say, ‘the first Paideia course set it up for me, got me going.’”

“This is a quality education for all students,” says Sullivan.

Sustaining the Paideia Program 

Ongoing faculty development is central to the Paideia program. In addition to weekly meetings, faculty meet over the summer to discuss what texts might be selected each year. The endowment is overseen by a board of representatives from each division of the college.

Bailey says that the Paideia concept has endured several changes. “And the faculty is overwhelmingly in favor of this,” he notes. “It is deeply entrenched in the culture of the college.” Still, he says, there are challenges. “One of things that we are finding is that between Paideia 111 and 450, depending on the major and what people are doing, some students aren't getting continued work in argument, analysis, and writing. So this is an area we are looking at now, what are other people doing in between first year and senior year. With a little bit more intentionality, we would actually magnify the work they are doing.”


Bailey encourages other colleges to consider a shared academic experience for students. “I think having every student reading some common texts, thinking about some questions in common, is just the sort of thing that a liberal arts college should be prepared to do. Mathematicians, economists, accountants, musicians, teachers, poets, and biologists are all, at some level, wrestling with the same questions and having some kind of common intellectual experience. That is what I would highlight. That is the sort of thing that college is for.”


Editor’s Note: The text of the “The Creation of the Paideia Program” section has been corrected to more accurately represent the funding history of Luther College’s first-year program.

Luther College