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Our Liberal Arts Roots

Categories: General

My post on study abroad generated some good discussion about the liberal arts, and its importance to a Middlebury education.  In order to gain some historical perspective on the College’s commitment to the liberal arts, let’s take a quick tour through the history of the Middlebury curriculum.   Anyone interested in learning more about these factoids can review the College’s course catalogs and David Stameshkin’s two-volume history of Middlebury College (as I did).

  • In 1818, freshmen studied the first books of Livy; Blair’s Lectures Abridged; English Grammar; Sallust; Cicero de Officiis, deSenectute, de Amicitia; Priestley’s Lectures; Collectanea Graeca Majora.  Sophomores, juniors, and seniors likewise took a set curriculum focused on classical subjects.
  • In 1883, the trustees voted to admit women, leading to the following language in the 1883-84 course catalog: “By recent action of the Trustees the College offers the same privileges to young ladies as to young gentlemen.”
  • In 1900, freshmen were still required to take a “classical course” (as were sophomores), but juniors and seniors could now supplement required classes with electives.
  • By 1940, the elective system was firmly entrenched, and Middlebury students were majoring in particular subject areas or disciplines.  Freshmen had the option of electing introductory courses in several subject areas, including Home Economics.
  • In 1955, Home Economics was still in the course catalog, and first-year students were required to take Physical Education.  First-year men also took basic R.O.T.C.   In 1975, R.O.T.C was an elective, and the program included a class in Military Science.
  • In the 1970s, the College expanded its schools abroad program to include undergrads (it had previously served graduate students alone), and by the mid 1980s roughly 40% of the junior class chose to study abroad, making Middlebury a leader in this area.
  • Also during the 1970s and 80s, the College expanded the number of interdisciplinary programs to include classical studies, Jewish studies, the international major, and Northern studies (which no longer exists), a trend that continued through the 1990s and remains a distinguishing feature in our curriculum to this day.

How to describe this brief and incomplete history of curricular change?  What does it tell us about the evolution of the liberal arts at Middlebury?    Few would argue that military science, home economics, or a required classical course—the mainstay of nineteenth-century college education—should return to Middlebury’s curriculum.   But at certain points in the College’s history, these classes were indeed a part of our educational tradition.

In Cultivating Humanity (1997), University of Chicago professor Martha Nussbaum defines liberal education as the “cultivation of the whole human being for the functions of citizenship and life generally.”  As Nussbaum and other scholars have shown, the idea of liberal learning, or the “examined life,” can be traced back to Greek and Roman philosophy.   However, the history suggests that how colleges and universities have gone about realizing this ideal has varied according the educational needs of the moment—and the future.

So, philosophically (which is to say pragmatically) speaking, how should the College evolve to meet the needs of the future?  Given the possibility of a stingier economy, what aspects of a Middlebury education should be preserved at all costs?  Where should we pull back?  How might we build on our historic strengths to prepare students to meet the realities of this century—globalization, environmental challenges, etc?

More on the New Normal

Categories: General

To provide some context for my previous post on study abroad, here are some observations taken from an article that appeared yesterday in the online edition of  The Chronicle of Higher Education.   There is a lot press out there these days on the adjustments that colleges and universities have had to make in the wake of the recession, but this one pays particular attention to the need for future change.  The authors write:

It may also be a sign that the full effect of the economic fallout has yet to hit home on many campuses, a perception reflected in numerous interviews with anxious higher-education leaders and in the sobering findings of a new Chronicle survey. In the survey sent to chief finance officers at four-year colleges in September, 62 percent of the respondents said they did not think the worst of the financial pressures on their institutions had passed. Nearly two-thirds of them worry that 2010, 2011, or 2012 or later, will be even tougher.

“In some respects, people are doing what they should be doing in an economic downturn,” says Paul E. Lingenfelter, president of the State Higher Education Executive Officers organization. They are aiming cuts at “soft spots” and protecting core academic programs and student aid. But as Mr. Lingenfelter and countless other observers of the sector note, even when the economy rebounds, the pressures on colleges will be greater and all the usual sources of support—states, donors, and students and their families—are likely to be less able to provide resources.

The challenge, says Mr. Lingenfelter, is for higher education’s leadership to recognize that aiming to get back to pre-crash levels of financing or educational effectiveness is not enough. “We come across to the public as totally insatiable and resistant to change,” he says. “We’ve got to improve productivity.”

For most college leaders, managing in this new era of uncertainty has meant hunkering down. But observers say the coming months and years could require far more openness to change.

The full text of the Chronicle article is available here.  I will address the subject of institutional change in my next post, but from a different, specifically Middlebury perspective.

Going Global

Categories: General

Every other year or so, the Board of Trustees holds a retreat to discuss issues of broad importance to the College.  This year—last week, in fact—the Board met to consider the “new normal,” which is the phrase now being used to describe the conditions brought about by the economic downturn.  The idea is that because economic resources will be scarcer in the future than they have been in the last decade, academic institutions must think creatively about what they want to maintain and how they might operate differently.

To prompt discussion, several individuals or groups gave brief presentations on what the new normal might look like.  I was part of the lineup, and proposed that the College push forward on its ambition to be the “global liberal arts college” by boosting enrollment and requiring all students to study abroad.  This initiative, I argued, would allow Middlebury to build upon its curricular strengths and generate additional revenue.

An outline of this plan appears below.  Keep in mind that there is nothing official about this scheme, and that its chief purpose is to spark discussion about future possibilities.  That said, I am interested in what people think of it.

Enrollment

  • All juniors would study away for the entire year, and the College would simultaneously boost enrollment to 3200 students, or four classes of 800.
  • This arrangement would hold the current number of students on campus to 2400, with only three classes living in Vermont.
  • Currently—and this is on a prorated basis since many students go abroad for just a semester—175 students study abroad in Middlebury programs for the entire year.
  • The economic goal of this plan would be to gradually push this number up to 625 so that all students study in Middlebury programs.  This last point is important since students who go outside the Middlebury system take their tuition dollars with them.
  • To accommodate an additional 625 in its study abroad programs, the College would need to establish between 15 to 20 additional schools abroad (we currently operate 34 sites in 12 countries).
  • Our schools abroad include little overhead or infrastructure since we partner with local universities and residents/institutions for instruction and housing.  Our model allows for flexible and nimble growth, with few sunk costs.
  • To maintain flexibility and choice, we should consider adding English-speaking programs in Africa, South Asia, UK, and elsewhere.  We should also consider a study away program in Monterey.
  • We should involve Middlebury faculty in the development of these programs, and we should provide opportunities for our faculty to teach in them.
  • According to back-of the-envelope calculations, this plan could net $3.12 to 6.25 million in additional revenue.
  • Assuming we include non-Middlebury undergrads and grad students in these 20 new sites abroad, the annual net revenue could be as much as $8.25 million.

So that’s a general economic or logistical overview of the scheme.  Given the increased importance of international education and the excellence of our study abroad programs, I believe this plan also makes good educational sense.

But as I considered the merits of studying abroad, I got to wondering if there are other ways of mounting our program.  That thinking brought me to this question: suppose sophomores, instead of juniors, went abroad?   Here is a quick sketch of what that might look like:

Sophomores Abroad

  • We would reinvent the first-year curriculum to emphasize intensive liberal arts learning as well as writing skills.  Language study would be required, as would an interdisciplinary course on cultural difference and global citizenship.  There would be room for a limited number of electives.
  • Students would develop linguistic competence through a combination of language-study during the academic year, immersion programs (the Language Schools), and online education.  Students could pursue these supplemental programs before and/or after their first year at Middlebury.
  • Sophomore year abroad would be a time of personal discovery, of expanding intellectual and persons horizons before settling down to the second half of a Middlebury education.
  • Junior and senior years would devoted to the major.
  • The chief goal of this plan would be to frontload the transformation that comes from studying abroad.  Students would be able to build on their experiences abroad instead of readjusting to campus life their senior year and then preparing to graduate.  Their perspectives could truly internationalize the classroom and our campus.

Of course, there are good reasons not to require students to study abroad—for instance, athletes would have to take a year off from intercollegiate competition—but there are corresponding advantages as well.  And, as I suggest in the sophomore scheme, these advantages are educational as well as economic.

Thoughts?