Liberal Education

The Oriel Common Room: General Education and Faculty Culture

A faculty colleague once remarked that general education revision has become a fad. I replied that a stronger argument could be made that it has become a permanent institution. By one reckoning, the current phase may be dated from the late 1970s with the study of general education reform by the Carnegie Foundation. However, Ernest Boyer and Arthur Levine (1983), the writers of that study's report, identified two earlier revivals of interest in general education. The first began during the First World War and continued through the Depression when it was eclipsed by the rise of vocationalism. The second began during the latter years of the Second World War and found its symbol in the Harvard report of 1945, General Education in a Free Society. However, while discerning a certain historical ebb and flow, Boyer and Levine found general education revision to be a permanent undercurrent of higher education that displayed a remarkable continuity of interest over the decades.

Remembering that the point of any curriculum is to facilitate a certain educational experience for students, it is wise to ask: Is there any indication that this long history of general education revision or any single new curriculum has produced better-educated students? And if there is, are the results at all proportional to the efforts?

Beset by these doubts, we do not find the studies of what affects undergraduate development reassuring. In what is still the best and most thorough study of the college experience, Alexander Astin (1993, 331) concludes:

One of the major surprises of this study is the relatively weak influence on student development exerted by the formal general education curriculum. There are some significant effects associated with particular curricular variables, but the magnitude of these effects is almost always much weaker than is the case with measures of either the peer environment or the faculty environment.

To assess the effect of the general education curriculum, Astin distinguished three different forms: the true core, the distributional approach, and the major-dominated approach. Since the distributional system is by far the most common, Astin considered four additional variables: the inclusion of courses on contemporary issues, options for individualized work, interdisciplinary work, and the degree of structure in the distributional requirements (34-35). Of these seven features the only one that has some significance for student development is the true core curriculum (334). To conclude that these other features--and many not considered by Astin--have no effect on student development would be premature. Consequently, to revise a general education program to enhance student learning is not an unreasonable hope.

At the same time, if Astin's findings are even generally correct, a concern to improve a student's educational experience should not focus solely or even primarily on curricular revision. What Astin found to be far more important is a student's interaction with faculty and peers. Thus, what seems to be far more promising--even if more difficult--is serious attention to student culture and the role of faculty in student learning.

Faculty culture
In The Idea of a University, John Henry Newman identified another element, the influence of faculty upon one another. In attempting to realize one of the central goals of general education, to overcome the fragmentation and distortion of disciplinary specialization, Newman turned in this instance, not to the curriculum, but to faculty culture. He writes (1996, V: 77):

It is a great point to enlarge the range of studies which a University professes, even for the sake of the students; and though they cannot pursue every subject which is open to them, they will be the gainers by living among those and under those who represent the whole circle . . . . An assemblage of learned men, zealous for their own sciences, and rivals for each other, are brought, by familiar intercourse and for the sake of intellectual peace, to adjust together the claims and relations of their respective subjects of investigation. Thus is created a pure and clear atmosphere of thought, which the student also breathes, though in his own case only as he pursues a few sciences out of the multitude. He profits by an intellectual tradition, which is independent of individual teachers, which guides him in his choice of subjects, and duly interprets for him those which he chooses. (Emphasis mine.)

What we have here is certainly Astin's insistence on the importance of faculty influence on students, a strong emphasis throughout Newman's thinking on liberal education. What is added is that this influence is itself shaped by the influence of faculty on one another. More importantly, in this passage at least, Newman looks to this influence rather than to the curriculum to address one of the central and abiding issues of general education: how students who study only "a few sciences out of the multitude" overcome the distorting tendencies of their disciplinary specialization. In other words, breadth of understanding, a sense of the mutual relation of the disciplines, and the more accurate view of reality that comes from seeing the connection of things may arise, not from a requirement to study all branches of learning, not even from what we now call interdisciplinary or team-taught courses, but from a faculty culture nurtured and shaped by cross-disciplinary conversation.

What lies behind this is no doubt Newman's own experience of faculty life at Oriel College, Oxford, where he began his teaching career. Newman did not find his undergraduate experience at Oxford intellectually satisfying. He was in many ways a victim of the new honors examination system and its emphasis on cramming large quantities of knowledge into the student so that he could distinguish himself on a grueling oral and written exam. Indeed, throughout his life, Newman was strongly opposed to the notion that education is essentially imparting knowledge to the student and measured by formal examinations.

What Newman did find satisfying was the conversation of his fellow faculty members when he was elected to his first fellowship, for there he found "a comprehensiveness or catholicity of mind" (Culler, 45) which is essential to a liberal education. To be sure, individual faculty had an important influence on Newman. However, the common room, where the faculty met for frequent informal discussion, with "its daily collision of mind with mind" had its own special contribution to make. Indeed, for Newman, it is this conversation and the tradition it shapes that is the very essence of a university--or as we might better say, of a liberal arts college.

Faculty culture and student learning
While I know of no studies that establish the precise connection between faculty culture, as Newman describes it, and enhanced student learning, some studies of learning communities are very suggestive. But more than this, the connection has strong intuitive appeal. Liberal education assumes the value of reasoned discourse. The suggestion that faculty can enlarge one another's perspective through discussion is possibly that hope without which liberal education is pointless. Beyond this, there is also the suggestion that peer influence--all that is involved in the daily give-and-take of intellectual discussion--plays a role. And we know of its power, perhaps better than Newman did.

Given that the case for the value of curricular revision is not, in the current state of the discussion, a strong one, it is perhaps time to explore other perspectives on the renewal of general education. Newman's observation suggests a fuller perspective that is well worth our attention, in part because it resonates with much that we are learning about the process of successful general education reform. But more than this, it might point us in the direction of a new paradigm: The renewal of faculty culture may be more central to the vitality and success of general education than the current -- and long-standing -- focus on the curriculum.

Most immediately, Newman's remarks lead us to question whether the standard account of the development of general education is correct--or as correct as it is often taken to be. Is disciplinary specialization really the main force working against general education? Specialization itself is deeply a part of human life and society and has the potential both to impoverish and to enrich. As academic specialization was increasing in the mid-nineteenth century, Newman did not regard it as an obstacle to a well-rounded education. Having all the disciplines represented enriched the intellectual atmosphere that students breathed. What would prevent specialization from fragmenting the education, Newman hoped, is a common intellectual tradition and ongoing discussion--the common room and the culture that it embodied and shaped.

Conversely, what may destroy general education is not precisely specialization, but a specific sociology of specialization. As they now exist, disciplinary communities are not only the primary (perhaps the sole) intellectual reference group of most faculty, but they also help to destroy ongoing, institutionalized cross-disciplinary discussion. The combined effect of these forces over time is to destroy or drastically diminish any shared intellectual culture in colleges and universities.

To be sure, there are other cultural forces working toward this same end, and the erosion of a common intellectual tradition is not confined to institutions of higher learning. But if there is little living intellectual culture in society at large, it is easy to see how insights gleaned through disciplinary specialization do not appear to enrich. Worse still, if many of the living intellectual traditions are within the academic disciplines themselves, it is even easier to understand why specialization is thought to be the culprit. Notwithstanding, while the academic specialization may have helped to impoverish general education, integrated by the right sort of faculty culture, it may, as well, enrich, as Newman believed it could.

Common culture through curriculum review
Perhaps the reason that general education reform has been a perennial part of higher education is that the prevalent faculty culture is inimical to its goals. Sociologically, it runs against the grain. Conversely, it may also be the case that what is valuable about the process of curricular review is not the new curriculum arrived at but the changes in faculty culture produced by the process itself. Arguably, general education reform is the single strongest force for the renewal of a common faculty culture.

Consider the process of review and discussion leading to the adoption of a new curriculum. What a faculty and its review committee have to consider collectively are basic issues of the nature of liberal education and the outcomes desired of a liberally educated person. If the process is both substantive and successful (and it is often neither), what results is not just agreement on a new curriculum, but some correction of departmental and disciplinary myopia--an enlarged and more common vision of liberal learning.

The place that we would expect to see more of the kind of conversation Newman described is in the process of implementing a new curriculum, particularly if it involves new interdisciplinary courses.

What we know is that a large percentage of the faculty who choose to participate in these general education programs do so in part out of a desire for this kind of conversation. In her study of the Cultural Legacies Project at AAC&U, Betty Schmitz (1992) discovered that the majority of faculty who participated did so "at least partially because of the opportunity to discuss teaching and to engage in intellectually stimulating seminars with colleagues from across campus" (67), and that this was almost as strong a motivator as released time and monetary incentives.

Beyond planning and piloting new courses and the enthusiasm of giving substance to promising curricular proposals lies the challenge of institutionalizing the new curriculum--or more modestly, of enabling it to work well more than the first or second year. Jerry Gaff (1991) has reminded us on many occasions that successful reform requires a strong commitment to ongoing faculty development. Gaff has also insisted (224) that successful general education reform requires larger changes in institutional culture. The goal--so far unrealized by most colleges and universities--is to perpetuate the ethos of the new curriculum and make it central rather than peripheral to the life of the institution. While Newman used an older idiom, speaking of the formation of "an atmosphere of thought" and "a tradition," the underlying point is much the same: There must be something that preserves, passes on, and renews the discussion and the common vision that are embodied in the new curriculum, if it is to be a vehicle for enhanced student learning.

In short, there is much to suggest that successful curriculum review creates, at least temporarily and among some faculty, a different kind of culture, one characterized by cross-disciplinary conversation and the resulting enlargement and correction of disciplinary perspectives. It also requires the institutionalizing of this conversation in a program of faculty development and institutional change. Arguably, these are the most powerful forces moving faculty culture in the direction Newman described.

The unsolved problem
Another virtue of the analysis Newman's observation suggests is that it points us to what may be the major, underlying, and unsolved problem of curricular reform: Are curricular discussion, planning, and a faculty development program able to produce lasting changes in faculty culture? Or are their effects short, or at best medium, term? Do our best efforts to date fall far short of creating a faculty culture supportive of general education?

It is sobering to recall that the prospects for intellectual community in contemporary higher education are not good. Faculty members are subject to all the pressures in American society that make community of any sort difficult. What is more, almost all colleges and universities--even the smaller ones who talk much about community-- are organized in ways that emphasize specialization. Worse still, many colleges and universities lack even the physical facilities--common dining rooms or faculty lounges--to facilitate a different kind of faculty culture. Perhaps the most promising resource they have is a system of electronic communication whose potential to create community is still unknown.

Given this, one option is simply to recognize that curricular review has been an almost permanent part of higher education over this century precisely because it is the only way to effect changes in the prevailing faculty culture. If strategic planning is the only effective way to unite and focus a campus on a common institutional vision, so curricular review and a faculty development program are perhaps the only way to restore some degree of shared faculty culture. Since there is no effective way of institutionalizing these changes in the patterns of faculty interaction, what we can expect is what we seem to have, a perpetual review and revision of the general education curriculum. There is, of course, something Sisyphean about this. On the other hand, there is also something realistic about it. Given the current realities of higher education, perhaps an ongoing cycle of curricular review, curricular revision, faculty development, assessment, and revision is the best we can do.

Toward a new paradigm
The alternative is perhaps something of a paradigm shift, changing the focus from trying to find (invent) the right curriculum to trying to create some new and more permanent structures that promote a faculty culture conducive to general education. Interwoven with the long history of curriculum review has been a tradition of experimentation with learning communities. Some of the classical examples have included fundamentally different structures. This tradition lives on in many of the honors colleges within larger universities. With this different structure have come a distinctive curriculum and ethos. However, the more common contemporary form of the learning community is simply a pair or cluster of courses. While this may produce a greater degree of intellectual community among students and some degree of integration among the courses they take, it may also fall far short of the kind of community among faculty that Newman described. Consequently, it may be that learning communities as they are more commonly created offer only temporary amelioration to a structure and culture fundamentally at odds with general education.

To move farther in the direction of a learning community that includes faculty may require us to consider a new paradigm for general education renewal. Clearly, the most important question to ask is what kind of education we want for our students. However, perhaps the next most important question is not what kind of curriculum will we need to achieve this, but how should we best organize ourselves. If this is the case, then a question that has always been at the periphery of the discussion ought to be given a central place: How should we as faculty and administrators structure our common life so that general education can flourish?

There are no simple or obvious answers to this question. Indeed, those immersed in the reality of current faculty and institutional culture may regard with great skepticism the suggestion that alternatives are even possible. But perhaps the task is less difficult than we imagine. If specialization is not necessarily the enemy of general education, then it may be that academic departments are not necessarily destructive of a culture conducive to general education. Again, Newman's Oxford may provide inspiration. Oxford and Cambridge, in their current forms, are both composed of two separate structures. The faculties--what we call departments--are the collection of all those who teach a specific discipline. The faculties are responsible for the curricula and research in the disciplines. The college, however, is a collection of faculty who teach different disciplines. It is responsible more for the student's residential life and co-curricular experience. Though the colleges offer no general education, their structure is conducive to it. While no previous structure will serve as a precise model, it may be that the success of general education reform lies with finding or creating something like the college with its common room and culture.


Robert Holyer is dean of the college at Randolph-Macon College.


Works Cited

Astin, Alexander W. 1993. What matters in college. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Boyer, Ernest and Arthur Levine. 1983. A quest for common learning. Washington, DC: The Carnegie Foundation.

Culler, A. Dwight. 1954. The imperial intellect: Newman's educational ideal. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Gaff, Jerry. 1991. New life for the college curriculum. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Newman, John Henry. 1996. The idea of a university, Frank M. Turner, ed. New Haven, CT : Yale University Press.

Schmitz, Betty. 1992. Core curriculum and cultural pluralism. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges.

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