Tag Archives: Liberal Education

Between the World and Our Students

William Blake, "America a Prophecy," New York Public Library, Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature.

William Blake, “America a Prophecy,” 1793. New York Public Library, Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature.

Steven Volk, August 16, 2016

Another hot summer of discontent dogs our heels as we prepare for the start of classes. It has been two years since Michael Brown was shot by a policeman in Ferguson, 18 months since a grand jury sitting in St. Louis County refused to indict officer Darren Wilson for his death, sparking protests in 170 cities across the United States.

Two days prior to the grand jury’s verdict in Missouri, 12-year old Tamir Rice was shot to death by officer Timothy Loehmann two seconds after Loehmann and a second officer slammed their squad car to within a few feet of the young boy playing with a toy gun in a Cleveland park. A grand jury convened by the Cuyahoga County prosecutor refused to indict either officer in the case.

These two were a small part of the hundreds of cases of black men, and women, killed by police in the past two years.

The death roll, sadly, infuriatingly, continued to grow over this past summer with, among others, the shooting of Sherman Evans in Washington DC (June 27), Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge (July 5), Philando Castile in suburban St. Paul (July 6), Earl Pinckney in Harrisburg (Aug. 7); and 23-year old Sylville Smith in North Milwaukee (Aug 13). According to an on-going project by the Washington Post, approximately 28% of the 587 individuals killed by police so far in 2016 (whose race was recorded) were black. An additional 17% were Latino. The proportions are similar to those from 2015.

Over the course of the sweltering summer we also witnessed the shooting deaths of numerous police officers, most notably five officers in Dallas, killed by Micah Xavier Johnson on July 7 and three officers in Baton Rouge, killed by Gavin Long, 10 days later. (Thirty-six officers have been killed by gunfire so far in 2016, which compares with 39 killed by gunfire in all of 2015).

And “witnessed” is the right word since, many of these deaths were recorded as they happened and circulated via social media, placing all of us at the “scene of the crime.”

William Blake, "Thus Wept the Angel..." 1793. New York Public Library, Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature.

William Blake, “Thus Wept the Angel…” New York Public Library, Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature.

Literally thousands have died in terrorist attacks in the past three months, from the massacre of 49 party-goers at an Orlando night club on June 12, to countless hundreds killed in attacks in Istanbul (June 28), Baghdad (July 3), Dhaka, Bangladesh (July 1), Balad, Iraq (July 7), Nice, France (July 14), and Kabul (July 23), among many others. And these do not even take account of the on-going annihilation of Syria. (Wikipedia carries a continually updated list of what it terms “terrorist incidents.”) Closer to home, in Chicago, 67 people, almost all black, and as young as 2, were murdered in July alone.

And to this list of unsettling events we can add the tumult of what has surely been the most unsettling presidential campaign in many decades.

The purpose of this catastrophic catalog is not to lend credence to the Trumpian charge that all “we” hold precious rests on the thinnest of threads (which only he holds in his hands), but rather to call attention to the fact that as our students arrive on campus over the next two weeks many, likely most, will carry the events of this summer with them in their heads and hearts, not to mention their smartphones. And so will we – faculty, staff, administrators, and all who have a hand in the education and well-being of our students.

The question is how should we address the events of the summer when our students return to class? How do we attend to our own health and well-being? I would propose both an immediate answer and some thoughts for the longer-term.

When Classes Begin

Most immediately, we must recognize the emotional toll that this past summer (and the year before that, and the one before that) has likely taken on our students and on us. We arrive at the first day of classes well prepared to teach calculus, Russian, Middle Eastern history, modern dance, Buddhism, organic chemistry, and much else. Addressing the crises of this and other summers doesn’t mean that we drop everything to examine the moment in which we live and ignore what we are trained to teach. Our responsibilities as teachers are much greater.

But we should, I would argue, acknowledge the emotional and mental costs of the on-going turmoil on our students, and recognize them in ourselves. We are humans before we are biologists or computer scientists, and many of our students want to know that we are not oblivious to what is happening in the world or to the pain that many of them feel.

In the end, such an acknowledgement is not difficult or time consuming. The easiest thing to do is to state, simply and directly, that the we are well aware that summer has been a hard one for students, just as it’s been for faculty, staff and all who work at the college. It is also important to note that there is support for students when they need it and to encourage them to speak to us or to others who can help in times of greater stress. But, even as we recognize how current events pull on their time and emotions, it is our responsibility as teachers to provide them the education they will need to succeed in the long run, and that we will strive to do that in each of our classes and all of our interactions with them.

In some classes, the subjects studied will directly address on-going events in the United States and elsewhere. But for most, our subject matter is different. Nonetheless all of our classes have as a goal the same fundamental objectives: to prepare students for their lives after college: to enable them to think analytically, reason critically, write persuasively, argue from evidence, engage with energy and passion, see different sides of a debate, and contribute productively, intelligently, and compassionately. These are things that they will learn in astronomy and art as well as in courses on Middle East politics and race in America. These are lessons to be absorbed in classrooms, athletic fields, co-ops, and dining halls.

Our task, then, is not to make our classes something that they are not intended to be or to privilege a relentless preoccupation with the present that can obscure a thoughtful consideration of both past and future. But it is a recognition of the burden of the present that allows us to better engage our students with their own future.

William Blake, "The Terror Answered," 1793. New York Public Library, Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature.

William Blake, “The Terror Answered,” New York Public Library, Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature.

The Long Run

In the longer term, we answer the question of how we address the events of the summer by acknowledging that this is hardly a new question; the world is always with us although we like to think that we can somehow escape it once inside our classrooms. But not only does the “real” world shape the complex lives of our students, it also influences the outcomes we seek through our teaching and how we imagine and plan for a future that our graduates will soon inhabit.

Secondly, we answer the question by building communities that are both a part of the world and apart from it. When we invite students into our classrooms, laboratories, studios, athletic fields, and residence halls, we usher them into a world that should honor the communities they come from, but also allow them the space to imagine and practice new ways of thinking, new forms of being, the creation of new selves and new communities. In this sense, education as an act of transformation can help students recognize the urgency of the world while also understanding how they will need to prepare themselves in order to change it. In other words we want to help our students address, in Shakespeare’s words, “necessity’s sharp pinch” while equally gaining the patience and perseverance required not only to get to the end of a semester, but to last over a lifetime of struggle.

To the extent that we are strategically positioned between the world and our students, to borrow from Ta Nehisi Coates, we can most productively occupy this position by acknowledging the many ways that the world presses in on them, and us, and by providing them the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to understand and change the world for the better.

Critical Thinking in the Classroom: Some Questions for the Summer

Steve Volk (May 4, 2014)

If you did a search for the “learning goals” of liberal arts colleges, you probably wouldn’t  find a single one that didn’t emphasize “critical thinking.” In fact, critical thinking as a desired educational outcome only makes headlines when some group decides that it’s not what schools should be teaching, which brings us to the 2012 platform of the Texas Republican Party:

We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority” (p. 12).

Ah, yes. Education should not challenge fixed beliefs or parental authority! Still, I’m not interested in pursuing that line of thought at the moment (as tempting as that might be), but rather want to consider what we mean when we talk about “critical thinking.” And, while I’m at it, I’d like to raise some questions for us to think about over the summer months which are visible right on the horizon: Are we doing what we should to foster critical thinking skills in the classroom? What more could we be doing? What kind of support do we need to create classroom pedagogies that foreground critical thinking? What challenges are we likely to face?

Walking to the Horizon (by I-am-Avalon). Creative Commons

While there is some discussion as to what, precisely, we mean by “critical thinking,” most cognitive or developmental psychologists would be content with the description provided by the American Association of Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) in one of its “VALUE” rubrics: “Critical thinking is a habit of mind characterized by the comprehensive exploration of issues, ideas, artifacts, and events before accepting or formulating an opinion or conclusion.” Those who create classroom strategies based around Bloom’s (2001 revised) taxonomy will recognize critical thinking as central to higher order thinking skills: analyzing, evaluating, and creating. (Bloom’s Taxonomy is a standard means of categorizing cognitive tasks by complexity, with the simplest at the bottom and the most complicated at the top.)

Bloom's Taxonomy (Revised)

Daniel T. Willingham, a cognitive scientist at the University of Virginia, provides his own layperson’s definition: “Critical thinking,” he writes, “consists of seeing both sides of an issue, being open to new evidence that disconfirms your ideas, reasoning dispassionately, demanding that claims be backed by evidence, deducing and inferring conclusions from available facts, solving problems, and so forth.”

The November 19, 2012 “Article of the Week” was Willingham’s “Critical Thinking: Why Is It So Hard to Teach?” In it he discussed the complications of actually teaching critical thinking, and you can review it again to see his arguments.

But I remain confident that as we explore the various components of critical thinking, we can develop teaching strategies which foreground it as an essential learning outcome for each class we teach. Perhaps what is so difficult about teaching critical thinking is that it is just one cognitive competency that is at stake within broad pedagogical contexts that require the development of specific abilities (e.g., the ability to take multiple perspectives, to layer relationships, etc.) and dispositions (including risk taking, task persistence, the ownership of learning, and perceptions of accomplishment)  (Perkins, 1994).

(Public Domain)

Shari Tishman, David Perkins and others (Tishman et al, 1993) have been examining what they call “thinking dispositions” for many years, developing useful approaches to help teachers develop informed pedagogies. Their list of seven dispositions that normally describe productive intellectual behavior includes:

  • The disposition to be broad and adventurous – open minded; explore alternative views; being alert to narrow thinking; the ability to generate multiple options.
  • The disposition toward sustained intellectual curiosity: to wonder, probe, find problems, observe closely and formulate questions; a zest for inquiry, alertness for anomalies.
  • The disposition to clarify and seek understanding: a desire to understand clearly, to seek connections and explanations; an alertness to muddiness, an appreciation of the need for focus; an ability to build conceptualizations.
  • The disposition to be “planful” and strategic: the drive and ability to set goals, make and execute plans, envision outcomes; an alertness to a lack of direction.
  • The disposition to be intellectually careful: the urge for precision, organization, thoroughness; an alertness to possible error or inaccuracy; the ability to process information precisely.
  • The disposition to seek and evaluate reasons: the tendency to question the given, to demand justification; an alertness to the need for evidence; the ability to weigh and assess reasons.
  • The disposition to be metacognitive: the tendency to be aware of and monitor the flow of one’s own thinking situations; ability to exercise control of mental processes and to be reflective.

Much like the broad field of critical thinking, it isn’t easy to teach these dispositions. As we rush to cover the content areas that our students need in any particular class, we often quietly shove any focus on these learning dispositions out the window.

Matthäus Merian, Defenestration of Prague, 1618 (Creative Commons)

But even if it’s not a question of sacrificing dispositions to content coverage, foregrounding learning dispositions can be challenging for a number of reasons. For one, we often find that students, in their own cognitive development, are embedded in a “multiplist/subjectivist” phase of thinking, as Patty deWinstanley has pointed out in her valuable discussions with faculty preparing to teach first year seminars. [The best known proponent of a theory of intellectual and cognitive development among college age students is William G. Perry (Perry, 1970).] Whatever a student in that stage thinks is right, is right; and in areas where the “right” answer isn’t known, a multiplicity of views is right. Our challenge then becomes how we move students from this phase to a more “evaluativist” position.

In many ways, grappling with critical thinking and creating thinking dispositions in our classes can turn them into what Mary Louise Pratt described as a “contact zone” – a social space where “cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other…” If difficult, that “zone” is also where, Dewey argued (1910), real thinking occurs. Dewey talked about some experiences as “educative” because they enhanced the making of further experiences, and others as “mis-educative” because they had no further influence upon later experiences (Dewey, 1947). Thinking occurs, he argued, when the “normal flow” is interrupted, when our common assumptions and perceptions are challenged, when problems and conflict arise. In other words, learning occurs at this point of “clash.”

Our challenge as teachers, then, is to encourage the emergence of a “contact zone” classroom, what I would call the “uncomfortable classroom,” at the same time that we use the discomfort created to open it to real dialogue (Freire, 1970). When we have figured that out, we will be far on our way to promoting critical thinking in the classroom.

Still, as I suggested in the opening questions, creating such pedagogies often requires considerable support, so I encourage you to use the summer months to think about what you could use to help create challenging and dialogic classrooms. What seems perfectly clear and sounds impeccably logical on paper can feel quite different in the heat of the moment in a classroom discussion.

Some bibliography

John Dewey, Experience and Education [1947] (Free Press, 1997).

_______ , How We Think [1910] (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (February 10, 2013).

Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed [1970] (Bloomsbury Academic; 30th Anniversary edition (September 1, 2000).

See David N. Perkins, The Intelligent Eye. Learning to Think by Looking at Art (LA: The Getty Center for Education in the Arts, 1994).

William G. Perry, Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years: A Scheme (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1970.)

Shari Tishman, Eileen Jay, David N. Perkins, “Teaching Thinking Dispositions: From Transmission to Enculturation,” Theory into Practice 32:3 (Summer 1993): 147-153.]

Daniel T. Willingham, “Critical Thinking: Why Is It So Hard to Teach?” American Educator (Summer 2007): 8-19.

Only Connect? What is the Future of Higher Education

Steve Volk, March 3, 2014

Last November, our colleague, David Orr, delivered the Presidential Lecture entitled: “Only Connect: A 4th Gyre.” (If you missed it, you can catch up with it on YouTube).  David borrowed E.M. Forster’s phrase, “only connect” to underline what is needed to “turn vicious cycles into virtuous cycles that eventually transform our politics, economy, cities, buildings, infrastructure, landscapes, transportation, agriculture, technologies, and our manner of thinking.”

Forster’s injunction, from Howards End, spoke to the importance of bringing all the parts of one’s life together: “Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.”

EM Forster, Howards End

This charge, to “only connect,” ricocheted around my brain as I read a new study produced by the Gallup organization for the Lumina Foundation.  “What America Needs to Know About Higher Education Redesign,” argues that “the importance of post-secondary education in preparing and connecting people with a good job” should be at the center of a redesign of higher education. By stressing that single purpose, the study stands Forster on his head, arguing in favor of a life in fragments, one in which students are disconnected from community and purpose, to say nothing of passion and prose.

Now, Lord knows, I have nothing against our graduates getting “good jobs.” Indeed, we would do well to think about this more. But the study so assiduously frames its findings within a master narrative of an education system that has failed in its mandate to prepare workers for the labor market that it ignores not just the larger purposes of a higher education, but its own data. To cite just one example, the poll highlights the finding that 95% of the public judge the quality of the college or university on the ability of its graduates to “get a good job.” 95%! That’s hard to argue with – the U.S. public want a higher ed sector that “only connects” graduates and jobs.

And yet an even higher percentage of respondents (98%) judged the quality of a college or university not on its connection to the job market, but on the qualifications of the faculty, and a substantial majority (86%) found the percentage of students who pursue further education to be of significant importance when determining the worth of colleges and universities. These points weren’t included in Lumina’s bullet points or picked up by the press; neither particularly fit into their seemingly preferred degree-to-job narrative.

Even more disturbing was the second part of the study which polled “business leaders” (also defined as “thought leaders”) in executive positions (but not further described). Nearly 70% of those polled said they would consider hiring employees without a post-secondary degree or certification, and only 16% of them agreed that “most jobs at my business require a post-secondary degree or credential to be successful.” Thought leaders? A myriad of other polls have underscored the importance of a post-secondary education for future success in the labor market(See, for example, results from the American Association of Colleges and Universities and here and Northeastern University). But, evidently, not those questioned by Lumina/Gallup.

Let me be clear. We do want our graduates to earn a living, to be able to find meaningful employment. If the employers at Google or Genetech or Ford express a dissatisfaction with college graduates, shouldn’t we pay attention? Yes, at some level, we should. But not, it would appear, from Lumina’s particular group of 623 business leaders. A further data point from the study (one that, again, didn’t make the highlight reel) discloses that 68% of the employers surveyed said that it was somewhat to very likely that employees at their businesses who earned a post-secondary degree while working for them would leave their current jobs for employment at other firms.

Student working in Statistics Machine Room, 1964, London School of Economics

I’m no wizard at statistics, but what we seem to have here is a poll taken of “thought leaders” who (in significant percentages) don’t think post-secondary education is important for hiring at the present time, don’t think that post-secondary education will be needed for a large percentage of their firms’ jobs in the future, and recognize that most of their employees would abandon ship if they actually did manage to earn a post-secondary degree. Yet the study headlines the fact that only 11% of those polled strongly agree with the statement that higher education is actually graduating students to meet their needs. Huh?

As troubling as I find this instrumentalist view of higher education, I think the Lumina/Gallup data is useful in three respects. (1) It encourages those of us in the very rarified atmosphere of liberal arts colleges (only 4% of the total higher education sector) to think about how we relate to the sector as a whole and, more to the point, what we believe higher education should do for all who pass through its doors. (2) It draws attention to the fact that employment is what will be in the future for almost all our students, and while that employment will not be as narrowly defined as Lumina suggests, we do need to think about the connection between the education we provide and preparation for that future. (3) Finally, and importantly, it begs the question of what it is that we do in higher education.  I’ll only address the last point here by circling back to the charge to “only connect.”

David Orr was not the only writer on higher education to look back to Forster. In 1998, another environmentalist, the historian William Cronon, published a lovely article in The American Scholar titled, “‘Only Connect…’ The Goals of a Liberal Education.” (You might remember Cronon from 2011 when the Republican Party of Wisconsin subpoenaed his emails in an attempt to intimidate environmentalists at the University of Wisconsin.) As opposed to the Lumina Foundation, whose study suggests that higher education is solely about preparing graduates for their first, entry-level (and apparently dead-end) jobs, Cronon takes a broader view of what it is we do, one that is so engaging I hope you will read his article, which I’m offering as this week’s “Article of the Week.” (You can find it here, and in CTIE’s Blackboard site: CTIE>Article of the Week>March 3, 2014.)

What do we mean by a “liberal education,” Cronon asks? He points out that “liberal,” is derived from the Latin (liberalis) meaning “free.” But it’s also rooted in the Old English word lēodan (“to grow”) and lēod (“people), not to mention the Greek word eleutheros (“free”) and even the Sanskrit word rodhati, meaning “one climbs,” “one grows.” As he sums up: “Freedom and growth: here, surely, are values that lie at the very core of what we mean when we speak of a liberal education…it aspires to nurture the growth of human talent in the service of human freedom” (74).

Lieut. F. Schwatka, Wonderland; or, Alaska and the Inland Passage (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1886), 13.

In his essay, Cronon considers what should go into a liberal education curriculum. But, in the end, he remarks that it’s not really about the items in the curriculum, the boxes you check off, so much as the values we seek to instill in the students who share that educational process with us. To this end, he describes ten such values. I’ll list them here, but recommend that you read the article and discuss the points raised with colleagues.

How does one recognize liberally educated people, Cronon asks?

1. They listen and they hear.

2. They read and they understand.

3. They can talk with anyone.

4. The can write clearly and persuasively and movingly.

5. They can solve a wide variety of puzzles and problems.

6. They respect rigor not so much for its own sake but as a way of seeking truth.

7. They practice humility, tolerance, and self-criticism.

8. They understand how to get things done in the world.

9. They nurture and empower the people around them.

And, of course,

10. They follow E. M. Forster’s injunction from Howard’s End: “Only connect…”

If I had to choose between Lumina’s idea of higher education and Bill Cronon’s…well, no contest.

I’d like to periodically return to these points and see how we can develop a discussion around each of them. Are these the characteristics we want to see in our graduates? Are there others? How are they reflected in our curriculum and our graduation requirements?  Much to think about.

The Disciplines and Undergraduate Education

Stanley Katz, Chronicle of Higher Ed – The Chronicle Review – Brainstorm, Dec. 4, 2008
I wrote in my last post about the downside of specialization, and one of the commenters quite rightly responded that whatever the virtues of a more general orientation, generalists have a hard time finding academic employment these days.

Quite right. I am, alas, sure that the trend to subdisciplinarity will not disappear anytime soon. But the problem is even more profound. Luke Menand, one of my favorite commentators on higher education, recently gave a paper at Princeton on interdisciplinarity, a much ballyhooed style of scholarship and pedagogy these day s. Luke’s main point was that what we normally call “interdisciplinarity” is really better described as hyperdisciplinarity, since it depends utterly upon disciplinary knowledge: “It is not an escape from disciplinarity; it is the scholarly and pedagogical ratification of disciplinarity.” Or, “Interdisciplinarity is the ratification of the logic of disciplinarity. . . . [It] actually rigidifies disciplinary paradigms.” Luke goes further, and claims that interdisciplinarity is a symptom of anxiety about professional status (which has traditionally been created by the disciplines), an attempt to shake free of the constraints imposed by the disciplines — but it cannot go far enough to do the job.

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