Liberal Education

Cracking Open the Curriculum: Lessons from a Community College

Community colleges comprise the largest single sector of the US higher education network. Forty percent of undergraduates attend one of our two-year schools. Some estimates suggest that, since the turnover is quicker than on four-year campuses, two-thirds of the students who attend a college at all attend a community college. For many of those students, open-access institutions are where they are exposed to the liberal arts: science, composition, mathematics, the humanities, and so forth. Yet, general education in the two-year school receives scant attention in scholarly publications, and even less in the popular media.

Lately, however, the liberal arts have been receiving attention on the Casper College campus. In the fall of 2009, we created a committee charged with evaluating and changing the school’s general education program. We will not speculate about the motivation for the wholesale reassessment, but we will cite a common local assumption: the curriculum ought to change with the times. We realize that assumption is arguable, but our program had been in place for three decades, and the college administration had been talking about “cracking open” general education for at least five of those years. Thus, a group of fifteen faculty and two staff members embarked on a journey to assess, discuss, and ultimately recreate the liberal arts core within our curriculum.

As of this writing, the group is midway through its third year of deliberation. In that time, we have met with some success, but the team has also faced a series of challenges. We trust that our discussion of the process of curricular change at Casper College will sound familiar to those who have undertaken a similar endeavor. We also are confident that our example will prove helpful to those who have yet to engage in the process. In what follows, we share some of the lessons we have learned.

Consider the history of the community college

The study of history is a cornerstone of general education. Across the country, and around the world, we ask students to study history under the assumption that the present and the future rest on a foundation built by previous generations. Ironically, our committee did not take time to discuss the history of general education in the two-year school. Our situation is hardly unique, however.

One of the quirks of higher education is the practice of hiring full-time educators without a background in the study of education. A comparison with other professions makes the situation seem uncanny. For example, a hospital would not hire a medical doctor who had not made a formal study of medicine; law offices do not hire counselors who have not studied the law. But we routinely hire teachers without a background in the study of teaching. This practice sends the message that matters of education and curriculum do not require rigorous thought or analysis. After close to three years’ worth of arguments among members of our committee, we are certain that assumption is untrue.

At a minimum, if we would have taken time to study the role of the liberal arts in two-year schools, we could have developed an understanding of the reasons why committee members often found themselves at odds with each other. Even a brief examination of the community college suggests that the institution has a unique relationship with general education.

Historically, two-year schools were liberal arts colleges, patterned after the University of Chicago. In the late eighteen hundreds, William Rainey Harper, then president of the university, divided undergraduate studies into junior and senior colleges. That split the four-year baccalaureate. The first two years introduced students to the arts and sciences, while the third and fourth years immersed them in a particular subject.

In 1901, with Harper’s support, the first junior college opened its doors at a site in Joliet, Illinois. The school was the first to offer the associate degree. Harper chose the term “associate” to suggest that the degree’s value was to be realized when it was “associated” with in-depth study in a single discipline. For three decades, the model used in Illinois served as the national standard.

By the middle of the twentieth century, junior colleges began transforming themselves into community colleges. That meant a shift away from the liberal arts, toward a more comprehensive mission. The schools sought to balance the goals of general education, vocational training, and community outreach. In the new era, the associate degree was no longer thought to represent the first half of the baccalaureate. In many cases, two-year degrees became terminal. Programs were divided between the liberal arts and a major. That trend continues to this day.

The problem is that students still must earn roughly sixty-four credits to qualify for the associate degree. Major requirements account for at least a third of those credits, though many majors use up fully half the space in a degree program—and some would like to take up even more. In certain departments, major coursework could account for all sixty-four credits. Thus, in the community college, we argue about the size and shape of general education.

The changing mission of the institution put a squeeze on the curriculum. As a consequence, there is no easy way to settle the argument over the number of credits it takes to complete general education in a two-year course of study. But it is helpful to know that the debate has roots in the fact that we are asking associate degrees to perform roles for which they were not originally intended. In other words, the problem is historic and structural, and therefore not unique to the psychology of any particular members of a curriculum committee.

Examine the assumptions behind your intentions—even the good ones

More so than other student populations, community college students attend class and pursue their education in the face of hardships. Some students are swimming in debt. Others are struggling to learn parenting skills at the sametime they are trying to learn to write effectively. For some, the walk to class presents a physical challenge, and some are unfamiliar with the basic workings of a computer.

Community college teachers are compassionate. When we see students in trouble, we want to help. Therefore, when we serve on committees designed to restructure curricula, we see the role as a chance to lend a hand. The tendency is to require students to take courses in the areas where we have seen them struggle. We could all cite a case where a student would have benefitted from a course on personal finance or parenting skills or computer basics. For that reason, we are glad our college and most others offer such courses, but in a liberal arts program, especially one of limited size, courses in basic skills often take the place of courses in the arts and sciences.

For some faculty, substituting one type of course for another seems appropriate, but there are questionable assumptions that underlie the tendency to steer community college students toward courses in basic life skills as opposed to the liberal arts. One of the assumptions is that two-year college students cannot meet the demands of challenging academic courses. Another assumption is that those same students will not rise into positions where they would make use of creativity, critical capacities, or higher-order thinking skills. Both assumptions require an unsavory lack of confidence in students, their potential, and their ability. In other words, we sell our students short, and in so doing we limit their potential to contribute to society.

Keep learning outcomes in their place

Early on, the majority of our committee members agreed that we should begin by listing the knowledge and skills our graduates ought to possess. The discussion of outcomes enjoyed a place of primacy in our meetings. During our conversations, we made good use of the Essential Learning Outcomes offered as part of the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative (AAC&U 2007). We also found support in Mary J. Allen’s (2006) Assessing General Education Programs. Our efforts culminated with a list of eighteen different outcomes, which were discussed and then approved by our faculty senate.

The next step included making decisions about where students would achieve the outcomes. Ultimately, we had to decide which courses they would take. On this matter, we did not reach a consensus. We had been focused on assembling a set of learning outcomes. Then, when we finished, we went looking for places where students could achieve our objectives. But it turned out that the range of places was broader than many of us had imagined. For example, students learn to think critically in our welding courses. They improvetheir writing skills in classes on marketing. On our campus, computer networking courses involve teamwork, and it is possible to demonstrate responsibility by taking workshops to improve safe practices in coal mining.

On one level, we were glad to find out that a range of courses address the outcomes typically linked to the liberal arts. Yet, it also began to look like our students might complete their general education without taking a single course in the arts and sciences. Moreover, from the perspective of certain departments, it started to look like students would not have to take any courses outside of the major. We believe in the importance of measuring outcomes, but the assessment of liberal arts outcomes is no substitute for a liberal arts curriculum. It is important to place general education outcomes in context—the context of the arts and sciences.

Disciplines matter—history, philosophy, biology, mathematics. Each field in the academy offers a unique perspective and method of inquiry. With regard to the history of higher education, Romans created the collegium to collect a diverse group of scholars in a single place. As a result, students and society both have benefitted from access to a range of means to frame and then confront problems.

Our committee started out by thinking small. We began by assembling a set of learning outcomes. If instead we had begun with a discussion of the disciplines students should engage with as part of their general education, however, then in the end we could have enlisted faculty from those areas to help establish appropriate goals and objectives. That was not our path, but it is an approach worthy of consideration.

Remember, two-year college students transfer

Four-year institutions enjoy a high level of freedom when it comes to their curricula. They can offer and require a unique mixture of classes. They can put a distinctive stamp on their liberal arts program, and, in the end, after completing the requirements, their students earn bachelor’s degrees.

Community colleges work under a different set of circumstances. We offer a general education program that will potentially serve as a component of a four-year degree in any one of the nation’s baccalaureate-granting institutions. Late in our process, we discovered that, between 2008 and 2010, students transferred from Casper College to 199 different institutions—from Middlebury College in Vermont to the University of Hawaii. Most two-year schools can make similar claims, and when community colleges drift away from a traditional core group of classes, graduates find it difficult to transfer. For instance, a two-year college may require an introduction to Microsoft Word as part of the general education program, but that course will not likely transfer as part of a university’s liberal arts curriculum. From the standpoint of students, it is vital that they receive general education credit for their general education.

Apply the argument for labor force development carefully

As is typical of any committee, on any campus, our curriculum committee included members who believe the liberal arts are unnecessary, that they are a distraction from the business taking place in the “real world.” A number of us made the case that employers value the outcomes of a general education. Hence, we held several discussions about the best means to prepare students for success in the labor force. We are happy to say that, near the end of the process, the majority of our committee members came to agree that the liberal arts serve graduates in the workplace.

Through the course of our meetings, however, no one made the case that the goals of a college education relate to anything but employment. The faculty geared toward workforce development argued for the necessity of vocational competence. The liberal arts faculty argued that general education plays a role in preparation for careers. Nobody argued that students are more than one-dimensional workers. Nobody claimed that education entails more than job training.

In the process of making the case that the liberal arts are valued in the workplace, faculty unwittingly support the assumption that colleges exist solely for economic purposes. Of course, the arts and sciences are useful on the job, but they also help fulfill a higher purpose: human development. The liberal arts provide resources to help people ask and struggle to answer questions that relate to ethics, logic, and what it may take to produce a just and peaceful future. Ideally, supporters of general education can divide their attention, and make the case that the liberal arts are preparation for both life and work.

Focus on enduring questions

As a nation, we place faith in the idea that we can use higher education to address social problems. Elected officials rarely give a speech without mentioning the role of education in solving one of our pressing concerns. Likewise, our committee spent time trying to decide how our general education program would contribute to the nation’s recovery from the recession that began in 2007. Our interest in solving the financial crisis led to an even longer discussion about the cause of our current predicament: consumer incompetence, Wall Street greed, Democrats, supply-side economics, and so on. Some of the discussions were brutal, and worse, they were unnecessary. By focusing on the problems that occupied our attention at the moment, we became distracted. We were kept from discussing the issues and questions that are most pertinent to a liberal arts program: the big, enduring questions.

The purpose of a general education is to give students a chance to wrestle with the issues that have dogged humanity since the beginning. Do we possess free will, or is our behavior determined? What are the standards for beauty? Is science the best or only way to know the truth? Are morals relative or absolute? What are the defining features of our age? Are freedom and equality compatible? What is our responsibility to each other, to the earth, or to animals? When students are given an opportunity to address such broad, durable questions, the end result is a careful type of introspection. Well-designed liberal arts programs create a place and time for students to ask, what should I care about and why? Or, to what use should I put my life? It is only through the process of grappling with such questions that students can move in the direction of living well, as opposed to simply making a living.

Conclusion

When we think of the liberal arts, many of us think of liberal arts colleges. We picture marble columns and creeping vines on brownstone walls. Most undergraduates do not attend private, four-year institutions, however. Statistically, most students attend community colleges. Thus, if the benefits of a general education are going to be realized, they are going to be realized, in large part, on two-year campuses.

That places a grave responsibility on faculty and staff. In our experience, however, that is a challenge that the personnel of two-year schools can meet. Through careful planning, sound choices, and frank conversations, the community college holds the potential to make good on the promise of the arts and sciences.

References

Allen, M. J. 2006. Assessing General Education Programs. Bolton, MA: Anker.

AAC&U (Association of American Colleges and Universities). 2007. College Learning for the New Global Century: A Report from the National Leadership Council for Liberal Education and America’s Promise. Washington, DC: AAC&U.


Chad Hanson is instructor of sociology, and Patrick Amelotteis instructor of English, both at Casper College.


To respond to this article, e-mail liberaled@aacu.org, with the authors' names on the subject line.

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