Alive at the Core: Exemplary Approaches to General Education in the Humanities

Alive at the Core: Exemplary Approaches to General Education in the Humanities

by Michael Nelson, & Associates, Ian Nelson
     
 

"The humanities core is back from the dead. Indeed, it is vibrant at increasing numbers of institutions that take seriously--and not just as a cliche--what it means to prepare students for 'living in the twenty-first century.' Those who are forward-thinking will find thoughtful assessments of the most successful programs today."
Jeffrey Wallin,…  See more details below

Overview

"The humanities core is back from the dead. Indeed, it is vibrant at increasing numbers of institutions that take seriously--and not just as a cliche--what it means to prepare students for 'living in the twenty-first century.' Those who are forward-thinking will find thoughtful assessments of the most successful programs today."
Jeffrey Wallin, president, The American Academy for Liberal Education

"Liberal education assures the well-being of society by providing both historical perspective and the mental agility required to navigate change. This heartening book shows a range of ways by which leading colleges and universities are meeting this critical challenge."
Susan Ford Wiltshire, professor and chair, Classical Studies, Vanderbilt University

This book joins the critical debate on humanities education and asks what higher education must do to encourage greater breadth of knowledge, improved critical thinking skills, and lifelong competence in students. Alive at the Core explores the importance of general education in the humanities, lays the foundation for meaningful learning, and offers different approaches to changing the core curriculum into a tool for lifelong learning. Drawing from thirteen colleges and universities, each chapter examines a creative humanities program--detailing strategies used to develop cross-disciplinary models of learning. The authors describe how each program began, how it changed, how students connected their knowledge to the world outside the classroom, how computer-based educational technology was integrated, and how faculty members were recruited and became motivated to teach in the program.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Alive at the Core is a title that says it all: the humanities core is back from the dead. Indeed, it is vibrant at increasing numbers of institutions that take seriously—and not just as a cliche—what it means to prepare students for 'living in the twenty-first century.' Those who are forward-thinking will find thoughtful assessments of the most successful programs today." —Jeffrey Wallin, president, The American Academy for Liberal Education

"Liberal education assures the well-being of society by providing both historical perspective and the mental agility required to navigate change. This heartening book shows a range of ways by which leading colleges and universities are meeting this critical challenge." —Susan Ford Wiltshire, professor and chair, Classical Studies, Vanderbilt University

"Nelson has put together a challenging, compelling, forthright, and, at times, moving collection that explores the core curriculum, humanities programs, and foundation programs at colleges and universities that remain dedicated to offering students a comprehensive grounding in a serious course of reading. Various rationales are explored; histories of programs assayed; future prospects considered. Alive at the Core means not so much to reassure as to challenge and to remind us of what is vital, alive, and well as institutions of higher learning rise to meet the challenges of providing excellence in general education." —Jean Bethke Elshtain, The Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics, The University of Chicago

Booknews
Contributes to the national debate on humanities education and explains what higher education must do to encourage greater breadth of knowledge, improved critical skills, and lifelong competence in its undergraduate students. Offers different approaches for changing the core curriculum, based on real-world practice at 13 colleges and universities. Describes how each program began and how it evolved, how students connected their knowledge to the world outside the classroom, how computer technology was integrated, and how faculty were recruited and motivated. Nelson teaches political science at Rhodes College. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780787947606
Publisher:
Wiley
Publication date:
04/06/2000
Series:
Jossey-Bass Higher and Adult Education Series
Edition description:
1 ED
Pages:
416
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.06(d)

Read an Excerpt

Alive at the Core: Programs and Issues
Michael Nelson



At King's College, the general education program in the humanities, Foundation Year Programme, is for freshmen only, as its name implies. At Eckerd, the program begins with the entering class but culminates in a senior capstone course, Quest for Meaning. The University of North Carolina at Asheville's Humanities Program is required of all students; indeed, it is the campus's flagship program. At Davidson College, the Humanities Program (Humes) is an option for fulfilling distribution requirements that is now available to less than one-fourth of the freshman class.

The Programs

Columbia's core curriculum is the grandmother of general education in the humanities. Its two-semester Introduction to Contemporary Civilization course (CC), which entered the curriculum in 1919, was the first tangible expression of the then-popular great books movement. This movement, whose leaders were Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler of the University of Chicago, Alexander Meiklejohn of the University of Wisconsin, Stringfellow Barr of the University of Virginia, and Columbia's own John Erskine, was born in reaction to the segmentation and specialization of the undergraduate curriculum that characterized the increasingly common free electives system of higher education. Columbia added another year-long great books course, Masterpieces of Western Literature (Lit. Hum.) to its core in 1937, followed a decade later by Masterpieces of Western Art and Masterpieces of Western Music, each of them a semester course. For nearly a century, all Columbia freshmen and sophomores have met in small classes to discuss important works from the Western tradition with a faculty member (or, increasingly, an advanced graduate student) from one of the humanities departments.

Issues Confronting the Programs

Although most of the general education programs in the humanities chronicled in this book appear to be thriving, all confront difficult issues. Some of these issues involve people, notably students, faculty, and administrators. Others involve curriculum, such as the prominence of sacred works on the syllabus, the place of non-Western studies, and the inclusion of music, art, and other nonwritten works. Still others are issues of pedagogy: What use can be profitably made of computer-based educational technologies? What is the proper balance between breadth and depth of coverage? between expert and broad-gauged teaching?

Student and Alumni Response

General education programs in the humanities consist of courses that students must take, either as an explicit requirement or as one means of meeting a set of distribution requirements. The great majority of these students do not plan careers or even majors in the humanities. Not surprisingly, many resent being required to take the courses and are convinced that the humanities will be of no value in their preparation for a career. Once enrolled, a large number of them find the primary texts to be difficult and overwhelming ("I have yet to meet the dynamo for whom this program was intended," one King's student lamented) and the lectures to be "boring."

Faculty Recruitment and Retention

The generally positive response of students to their experience in humanities programs is hard won. It depends to a great extent on the quality of the teaching they receive. Yet except at St. John's, no program is staffed entirely, or even substantially, by its own faculty. Instead, the faculty for these nondisciplinary programs must be recruited from the ranks of each college's discipline-based departments. Recruiting talented and committed teachers may be the greatest challenge that humanities programs face.

Most colleges have developed ways to strengthen the appeal of teaching in humanities programs. These begin with faculty hiring. Unless the chair of the program is involved in the interviewing process and candidates for positions in individual humanities departments are told that general education courses are part of the job, then teaching in the program may well be regarded as an unfairly imposed burden. At Eckerd, "announcements of faculty positions include a reference to 'willingness to participate in the college's values-oriented interdisciplinary general education program,'" notes Chapin, and "search committees weigh heavily the thoughtfulness and enthusiasm of each candidate's response." Tangible support from the institution to help instructors make up for time away from the discipline is also important: a reduction in teaching load, an additional semester leave, a summer stipend, and, most important, favorable attention from academic administrators when tenure and promotion decisions are made. Less tangible support from program colleagues is also helpful. The IH program at Temple, for example, operates a faculty listserv that, according to Zelnick, "allows experienced and newer faculty to discuss problems in understanding the books and in teaching them." Finally, a certain degree of instructor autonomy in course design may make participation in the program more appealing. Rhodes's Search course follows a common syllabus for the first year, but instructors in the second year of the course are granted considerable flexibility in deciding which works to assign.

Curriculum

The curricula of all the general education humanities programs represented in this book share several common elements: a chronological organization spanning many centuries, the assignment of primary texts from several genres (for example, poetry, philosophy, history), and a strong emphasis on the Western tradition. Previously neglected works of distinction by women have entered the reading lists of every program, along with greater attention to female characters and concerns in traditional works.

Music and Art

In 1945-46, the first year that Rhodes offered its Search course, music and art were an important part of the syllabus. In 1946-47, they were not. The Search faculty decided to abandon music and art for two reasons. First, although historians were reasonably comfortable teaching the Bible and philosophers were willing to teach epic poetry, few faculty members felt they had the technical training to teach music and art. Second, the faculty felt that it was all they and their students could do to meet the demands of a syllabus already crowded with important written texts.

Sacred Works

"The Bible appears on the syllabus alongside other books," writes Churchill about Hendrix's Western Intellectual Traditions program. "But as everyone who has tried it knows, it is difficult to approach the Bible as one among the books." For students who view the Bible as the revealed word of God, "their capacity to read the text and to ask what it means in a scholarly setting is occluded by a reverential trance." Other students, "disabled by scorn, ... are certain that everything in the Bible is either rank superstition or manipulative lie."

Non-Western Content

Nearly every program that was established before the 1990s was exclusively Western, and around half still are. At Columbia, Rhodes, St. John's, Davidson, Berkeley, and King's--all of whose programs originated more than a quarter of a century ago--virtually every assigned work on the syllabus is Western in origin. The other older programs, although still predominantly Western, recently have woven in Asian, African, and Latin American materials to one degree or another. Some of the name changes in these programs capture the spirit of this modification. Millsaps's Cultural Heritage of the West program is now Heritage of the West in a World Perspective, for example, and Eckerd's Western Heritage program has become Western Heritage in a Global Context. The programs created in the 1990s at Hendrix, Stanford, and the University of the South were all designed to include at least some non-Western works.

Programs that have remained Western have not done so mindlessly. Students need to understand their own cultural traditions, these programs' advocates argue; indeed one cannot adequately appreciate other traditions unless one is firmly grounded in one's own. Further, the philosophy, literature, history, religion, art, and music of the West are so extensive and varied as to require all the time and attention--indeed, quite a bit more time and attention--than humanities programs usually have. Faculty members, already stretched far beyond their professional training in a multidisciplinary Western course, would be impossibly burdened if they had to master the diverse and extensive cultural traditions of the East and South. Finally, with the exception of St. John's, where the entire four-year curriculum is Western, students are urged or even required to take non-Western courses offered by the departments. As Margaret Heller writes of the King's Foundation Year Programme, "We always need to say to ourselves, 'It's only a first-year course!'"

Pedagogy

Universal agreement exists among the programs represented in this book about several pedagogical issues. Even in programs that are heavy with lectures, small group discussions are regarded as the setting in which the most important teaching and learning take place. Instructors in the Rhodes Search course, for example, believe that each student's personal "search for values" is as important a part of the program as the West's historical search for values. The latter search may be facilitated by occasional lectures, but the former requires extensive time for discussion. In addition, all of the programs last at least one year and are offered primarily to freshmen and sophomores. The rationale seems to be not only that students will benefit from taking general education courses in the humanities before entering their majors, but also that they are more likely to appreciate these courses during the early years of college than the later ones. The exception in this regard may demonstrate the rule. Eckerd's required capstone humanities course for seniors, Quest for Meaning, is resisted by some students who, according to Chapin, "are at the stage in their education when they want to focus on their individual interests and enjoy maximum freedom."

Computers

"As with almost all new technologies," writes Nelson, "the advantages computers offer are instantly apparent, the costs subtle and hard to discern." Several programs now operate web sites, although more for the purpose of making syllabi, lecture outlines, and some other course materials available electronically than to give students access to additional resources. Several programs also have created listservs for each course so that students can pose questions or offer opinions to their classmates and instructors on-line. Temple, whose IH faculty is so large and far-flung as to make regular meetings difficult, operates a listserv in which instructors can seek advice from their colleagues about teaching difficult works.

Trade-offs

General educational programs in the humanities inevitably involve trade-offs between competing goals, all of which are meritorious. The age-old depth versus breadth controversy is perhaps the most familiar dilemma. Given the hundreds of works worth studying, is it better to sample many of them--hoping that a few will stick in students' minds but risking that none will--or to study a few of them at length, with all the dangers of narrowness of perspective that a short reading list entails? What about the competing claims of coherence and comprehensiveness? Organizing a program around certain big questions, as at Hendrix, or along a narrative line, as at King's, helps students to put the many pieces of a general education program together, but what about the pieces that are left out simply because they do not fit the theme?

Conclusion

The reading list for literary scholar John Erskine's General Honors seminar at Columbia consisted of sixty great books from the Western tradition--a book a week for two academic years. Because, in Erskine's view, the mark of these books was that they continued to speak to successive generations of readers centuries after they had been written, no textbooks or other secondary readings were used. Because the books would shed light on the students' own lives (or so Erskine hoped), the class would discuss them, not hear lectures from the professor. And because the books were universally illuminating, leadership of the class would not rotate from specialist to specialist in literature, the classics, philosophy, and so on, but would remain with one instructor, an amateur in the best sense of the word, who would be the students' fellow seeker as well as their guide in the search for truth and meaning.

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Meet the Author

MICHAEL NELSON is professor of political science at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. Author of several books on politics, he is the creator and editor of the Interpreting American Politics series for Johns Hopkins University Press and a former editor of the Washington Monthly. More than forty of his articles have been anthologized in works of political science, history, and English composition.

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