Tag Archives: Colleges and Universities

Rebranding the Liberal Arts: General Intellectual Capacities

A couple of days ago, someone alerted me to an older article (2011) about the job skills that one learns from the “Liberal Arts.” After I read it, my first inclination was to share it. Having already completed two degrees in the liberal arts, I understand the importance that the liberal arts can have on teaching us how to think about the world around us. Then, I remembered that, for some people, saying “Liberal Arts” is almost like profanity.

I don’t know if it’s because of the word “Liberal” is in there and for those folks who are politically inclined (or hear that word tossed around when talking about politics) think that only “Liberal” people should go to liberal arts schools, but there certainly is a stigma out there — real or imagined. As a result, I thought I’d do some digging to find the phrase’s origin and compare it to some of the other phrases that describe higher education programs.

According to Webster, liberal arts is defined as:

college or university studies (as language, philosophy, literature, abstract science) intended to provide chiefly general knowledge and to develop general intellectual capacities (as reason and judgment) as opposed to professional or vocational skills

Well, that seems simple enough: intended to provide chiefly general knowledge to develop general intellectual capacities. Although, the second half of that is a bit distressing: as opposed to professional or vocational skills. Are we meant to assume that general intellectual capacities are in opposition to professional or vocational skills?

My next search took me to Wikipedia:

The liberal arts (Latinartes liberales) are those subjects or skills that in classical antiquity were considered essential for a free person (a citizen) to know in order to take an active part in civic life. In Ancient Greece this included participating in public debate, defending oneself in court, serving on juries, and most importantly, military service (slaves and resident aliens were by definition excluded from the duties and responsibilities of citizenship). The aim of these studies was to produce a virtuous, knowledgeable, and articulate person. Grammarrhetoric, and logic were the core liberal arts.

This explanation certainly ties in with the dictionary definition. Having general intellectual capacities would allow one to participate in public debate and to become a virtuous, knowledgeable, and articulate person.

At this point, it’s still not clear to me exactly why we’re parsing liberal arts from vocational or professional skills, so I thought I’d check out the entry for higher education on Wikipedia. Not surprisingly, this entry also separates vocational and professional schools from the liberal arts. It includes 4 different types of higher education:

1. General. This amounts to what we usually think of when we think of university. There’s a great deal of focus on the abstract and the theoretical.

2. Liberal Arts. This is what we’ve already been discussing. Although, there are two other types embedded within: performing arts or plastic/visual arts.

3. Vocational. There’s a focus on practical experience at these types of institutions of higher education, with a bit of theory. These are sometimes referred to as trade schools.

4. Professional. These institutions usually require that the person applying already have a bachelor’s degree. Examples here could be business school, law school, medical school, etc.

It’s still not entirely clear why the liberal arts should be separate from some of these other types of higher education. For instance, when we revisit the definition of developing general intellectual capacities, isn’t that what the majority of higher education does for its students? Would someone really argue that going to a vocational school, a professional school, or going to a “general” school would deprive someone of developing their general intellectual capacities? Certainly not.

Although, I do think that there are things you learn from some of the different disciplines in the “liberal arts” that you can’t get elsewhere. For instance, psychology is such an important subject for understanding the people around you. I really think that “General Psychology” should probably be a required course in every higher education institution, but with a background in psychology, I’m certainly biased — at least a little. That being said, it’s still hard to understand why people wouldn’t want to take this course. Knowing about what “makes people work” could be so advantageous to getting by in the world.

This quick bit of research led me to believe that the “Liberal Arts” may be in need of a rebranding strategy. Of course, I’m not the first one to suggest this. I found an article in the Journal of College Admission from 2009: “The Liberal Arts Rebranded.” In the article, there were references to a number of examples of strategies used for rebranding. For instance, there’s the example of the “Liberal Arts and Sciences,” or the “Practical Liberal Arts and Sciences.” There’s also examples like “Liberal Education” or “Liberal Learning.”

I haven’t seen any data, but I don’t think that any of these would really sway too many people from their previously held bias against the liberal arts, but I don’t know that anything would for some folks.

If I’m brainswarming ideas for a way to rebrand liberal arts, I would think that the name would need to changed completely. Both ‘liberal’ and ‘arts’ are words that, to some, are too “soft.” If it’s not math and science-y, then they want no part of it. So, I would try to find a way to incorporate that definition we first looked at: general intellectual capacities. Those three words are quite a mouthful, so it wouldn’t work just like that. There’d have to be something that succinctly conveys that message.

 

Communication: Do They Hear What You Say?

Earlier this morning, I spent some time trying to unclog the toilet (note: if you live in an old building, be sure to get a high-quality plunger!) and I was reminded of my time living in a residence hall. At first, I did a double-take because that was almost 10 years ago. In thinking about my time as a resident of a residence hall, I remembered my roommate and his accidental slip up.

This story’s not about anything scandalous — in fact, it could happen to anyone. We were coming up on the winter checkouts and I was planning on leaving the residence hall after he was. As a result, my roommate had taken care of his share of the cleaning duties and was about to leave. Simultaneously, our RA (Resident Assistant) was knocking on the door — he was about to tell us about the events coming up that week and probably remind us to sign-up for a time to checkout.

The RA noticed that my roommate was about to leave and asked him why he didn’t sign-up for a time to checkout. My roommate explained that I was leaving in a couple of days and that I’d “checkout” our room. The RA then explained that we each checkout — individually.

~

The RA thought that his communication materials (flyers, bulletin boards, etc.) had clearly stated that each resident needed to check-out, but my roommate (and to some extent, me) thought that just the room needed to be checked out.

So, what’s the lesson here?

No matter how clear you think your marketing materials are, always, always, always have multiple sets of eyes look them over. If it’s possible, it’s even better to have someone outside of your area of expertise look it over. Meaning, if our RA had asked one (or more) of his colleague(s) to look over the materials, there’s a better chance than not that none of them would have interpreted it like my roommate and I did. It would have been better for the RA to ask one of the residents (or someone maybe even someone outside of the residence hall) to look over the materials to make sure that the message the RA wanted to convey… was being conveyed.

Consider the last important bit of communication you were involved in sending. Are you certain that your recipient understood what you were trying to communicate?

Higher Education is More Like Telecommuting and Less Like Newspapers, Part 2

In yesterday’s post, I looked at higher education in comparison to newspapers and to telecommuting. My conclusion was that higher education was more like telecommuting than newspapers (with regard to the introduction of technology). There’s one thing that I didn’t really touch on, but that I think is important: MOOCs.

With the development of massive open online courses (MOOCs), higher education can be broadcast to a wider net. That is, people who might not have otherwise had access to education will now have access to this education. I think that this is a great by-product of MOOCs and online education, in general. This even gives access to folks who might not have been able to take time out of their busy lives to attend classes to now be able to learn things (I’m thinking about working parents).

So, while online education seems like it might be disruptive to higher education, I don’t think it’s going to be that much of a hindrance to the current market of higher education. Of course, there will be some decline, but I don’t think it’ll be as big as folks are predicting. In fact, I think that these MOOCs will actually open up and create new markets for which higher education can then compete in.

We’re seeing some universities breaking into online courses. Heck, my first Master’s was through a hybrid program where most of the learning was done online! George Mason University seems to be taking advantage of MOOCs, too. I recently heard that the Mason Center for Social Entrepreneurship has published a MOOC in social entrepreneurship! Be sure to check it out.

Like I said yesterday: online education is sure to have an effect on higher education, but I don’t think that it will “end higher education as we know it.” I think for that to happen, it’ll take something like the technology I was talking about with CNN and the holographic presence.

Are Grades and Tests the Best Way to Measure Learning?

The other week in class, I was speaking with a classmate about grades and learning. We were opining about how sometimes, getting the right answer (on an assignment) shouldn’t necessarily be the goal of the assignment. That is, shouldn’t learning be the goal? Shouldn’t improving one’s storehouse of wisdom be the goal? Shouldn’t understanding be the goal?

Of course, that is the intention with these assignments — that one will learn/understand the material. After having spent (almost) an entire semester on the other side of the classroom, I certainly have [some] empathy for teachers and their assignments. While I don’t have to report to a department chair, I understand that in order to measure students, there needs to be something measurable and I understand that tests/assignments have become the easy way of doing this. Should this be acceptable, though?

I recently came across an interesting article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that addresses this issue:

According to this view, the nature of teaching and learning should be measured instead of relying solely on an outcome like a grade or a test. Students should be exposed to courses and assignments that require them to analyze information and apply it to new contexts, reflect on what they know, identify what they still need to learn, and sort through contradictory arguments.

Such opportunities are described in research literature as “deep approaches to learning.” They figure prominently in Thursday’s release of data from the National Survey of Student Engagement. While Nessie, as the survey is known, has long sought data on those practices, this year’s report replicated and extended the previous year’s findings, which showed that participation in deep approaches tends to relate to other forms of engagement, like taking part in first-year learning communities and research projects.

This article has sparked a great deal of debate in the comments section, too. Here’s one comment that I found particularly on-point:

I do not want to be an apologist for the way things are, because it is always possible to improve our practices and in many respects we are responsible for the critical view the public have of us (honestly, it isn’t all the fault of right wing politicians with an anti-intellectual bent); however, higher ed adminstrators and the higher ed press have to stop treating each new study, each new innovation and each new utterance from some rich person suddenly interested in, but also dismissive of, higher ed (I’m looking at you Bill Gates) as the silver bullet  that is going to transform and save higher ed.  My head is not in the sand, I know higher ed (particularly public higher ed) is going through rough times but the panicked responses of the folks in charge is truly dismaying.

~

I once wrote about the need to shift towards Waldorf- & Montessori-like education. When I wrote this, I was thinking more about elementary and high school. I wonder — what should the model look like for college/university? Should it also be Waldorf- & Montessori-like? I don’t know, but it’s certainly a question worth asking.