Liberal Education

Letter to the Editor

I have long been fascinated by the ongoing debate between those touting some new pedagogical approach to undergraduate education and those who argue that the tried and true is the only way to produce the greatest benefits. But I find that too often the debaters end up talking past one another, addressing only those points that support their position and failing to ground their assertions in evidence. It’s for this reason that I was disappointed in Johann Neem’s essay in the Fall 2013 issue of Liberal Education, “Experience Matters: Why Competency–Based Education Will Not Replace Seat Time”.

In his opening paragraph, the author stipulates that President Obama and Secretary Duncan are encouraging colleges to offer competency-based programs as a way to make higher education more affordable. In the rest of his essay he argues that such programs can't provide students with all of the benefits of a liberal education. He asserts that “being in a classroom on a campus with other students and faculty remains vital to what it means to get a (liberal) college education” and that liberal educators seek to ensure that students will have the intellectual experiences that make college education worthwhile”.

So what’s wrong here? Let me mention just three issues:

  1. The crisis of affordability is real. An increasingly critical agenda for higher education is to find ways to cut costs without diluting the quality of student learning. So to argue simply that the greatest educational benefits accrue to students who pursue a liberal education in a traditional campus environment misses the point. Pointing out the advantages of an experience that is increasingly unaffordable is like telling low and moderate income families that they ought to buy a Mercedes rather than a Kia because it is a higher quality product. It's time for traditionalists to accept the realities of our fiscal circumstances and to acknowledge that unless they develop ways to cut the costs of delivering degree programs, the brand of education they tout will be accessible only to a privileged few.
  2. Independent of the question of affordability, the author argues that “while colleges may hold themselves accountable for student outcomes, these outcomes can never and will never substitute for (intellectual) experiences that happen on college campuses, both within the classroom and beyond it”. In fact, the goal of a liberal education, he argues, “is to transform a person by offering him or her serious and diverse intellectual experiences”.

    These assertions lead me to ask a number of questions. Is there evidence that students who are offered such intellectual experiences do become transformed? Transformed in what ways? How much experience, over how long a period of time, is necessary for such transformations to occur? Are some experiences more transformational than others? When the author acknowledges that “It is hard to quantify the value and lasting influence of an experience”, is he saying that such things are unknowable or that we just haven’t tried hard enough? Is he saying that he doesn’t value an evidence-based approach to educational questions? I would hate to think he is telling us that he doesn’t seek answers to such questions so that he can’t be held accountable for the results of his efforts.

  3. How deep is the divide between the author’s idealized depiction of a liberal education and how it is actually carried out in the vast majority of cases? He claims that “we should judge teaching not by the amount of knowledge it passes on but by the enduring excitement it generates”. Moreover, “one hopes that students will be disturbed and fascinated – and even thrilled – by what they learn. These kinds of experiences happen when students spend time interacting with professors and each other on campuses – what Duncan calls “seat time”.

Most of us know from our own experiences as students and as faculty that learning can be exciting. But what is the balance between excitement, mild interest and boredom for most students pursuing a liberal education? My experiences, idiosyncratic as they might be, suggest that the balance swings widely from one student and one class to another and, overall, is not much different than it is for students enrolled in competency-based programs.

My point is that arguments in favor of one pedagogical approach over another should judge the approaches according to the same criteria, chosen for its relevancy, and should be grounded in evidence rather than idealized or stereotypical conceptions.

Johann Neem's response

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