Liberal Education

From the Editor

The capacity for synthesis, or integration, has always been recognized as central to what it means to be liberally educated. This recognition is expressed, for instance, in Oliver Wendell Holmes’s observation that “the knowledge of a man, who confines himself to one object, bears the same relation to that of the liberal scholar that the red or violet ray of a prism does to the blended light of a sunbeam.” Yet, by the end of the last century, it had become clear that many structural impediments to this sort of blending had grown up within the academy, and that the practiced ability to make connections could no longer be taken for granted as an outcome of liberal education. Greater emphasis was needed on this aspect of liberal education, and greater intentionality in fostering it was needed on the part of colleges and universities.

As a result, integrative learning has very quickly become a watchword of liberal education in the twenty-first century. The prominence given to integrative learning in the listing of LEAP essential learning outcomes, for example, reflects widespread and growing acceptance of the notion that, in order to remedy the fragmentation and incoherence of the undergraduate experience as well as to anticipate the complex demands of life and work in this global century, colleges and universities must develop more effective ways of fostering students’ ability to make connections among ideas and experiences and to synthesize and apply their learning across a variety of fields and contexts. Already, the borders are becoming increasingly porous between academic departments, general education and the major, the curriculum and the cocurriculum.

To a certain extent, however, acceptance has so far outpaced understanding. In an article published in Peer Review a few years ago, Mary Taylor Huber, Pat Hutchings, and Richard Gale—leading experts on integrative learning—quoted a frustrated faculty member who observed that “we are very fond of talking about integrated multidisciplinary learning experiences,” and who asked through a professional development listserv for “some reflections on what this might actually mean in practice.” “This,” Huber, Hutchings, and Gale admit, “is the $64,000 question.”

The Featured Topic section offers some answers. In the lead article, Bill Newell, professor of interdisciplinary studies at Miami University and executive director of the Association for Integrative Studies, sketches a focused vision for integrative learning and, secondarily, interdisciplinary studies. The authors of the second article present a successful faculty development model from Roanoke College that addresses the challenges of preparing faculty to teach courses that incorporate broad skills and make connections across disciplinary boundaries. In the third article, a Fulbright Scholar in General Education reflects on his recent experience in Hong Kong, where educators are confronting many of the same challenges of integrative learning that face educators in the United States.

Fittingly, and perhaps inevitably, the topics of integrative learning and interdisciplinarity do not respect the regular division of Liberal Education into departments. As you will see, these topics surface throughout this issue.

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