The University Record, May 6, 1998

Faculty Perspectives

The Unexamined Curriculum is Not Worth Teaching

By Stuart Y. McDougal
Professor of English and Comparative Literature

The fin-de-siècle is upon us. With computer clocks ticking down to the year 2000, it's time for us to ask whether the undergraduate major--an innovation from the early years of this century--is still the best way to educate students for the tumultuous changes they will face in the next century.

During the '90s, undergraduate education at Michigan has been the focus of a great deal of attention within the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. Improvements in teaching methods (including the uses of new technology in the classroom), the development of innovative new courses, new programs in living and learning, and greater attention by senior faculty to the undergraduate program have resulted in a better education for undergraduates in LS&A than they were receiving a decade ago. Yet, these changes are largely cosmetic--they do not alter the underlying model of the academic major. A large question remains unasked: Is this paradigm still the best one for our current and future educational needs?

The concept of the academic major was developed at Harvard in 1909 by its president, Abbott Lawrence Lowell. Clearly, the world was then a very different place. The major was designed to prepare students for a life's work in a chosen discipline: the major in English prepared students to teach English, or perhaps write or work as journalists; the major in mathematics trained mathematicians and those in related occupations, and so forth. The major was the focus of the department, just as the department was the embodiment of the discipline. Many of these disciplines--such as "political science," "sociology" and "anthropology" were themselves products of the late 19th or early 20th century. By-and-large, the clientele for such majors was a very homogeneous group--economically, socially and ethnically. Within a decade of its introduction, the major had become a prominent feature of American academic life. In the nearly 90 years since its establishment, however, the academic major has remained unchanged and in most places unchallenged--in spite of the vast transformations of the intellectual landscape, to say nothing of the democratization of our universities and the increasing diversity of our students.

The College of Literature, Science, and the Arts has long prided itself on giving its students a strong liberal arts education. Now, when the idea of a liberal education is under fire from a variety of quarters, it is ironic that perhaps the greatest justification for such an education is practical. Sociologists tell us that the average person will change jobs five to six times in a lifetime; the best preparation for such a career is not limited vocational training, but an education that gives us tools to answer questions we can't yet anticipate, to meet the challenges of a future that will no doubt be marked by social, intellectual, cultural and technological changes as great as those we are experiencing today.

A liberal education does this by training us to think for ourselves, to question and reason with rigor and logic. It teaches us to articulate our views convincingly and clearly, whether orally or in writing. It develops our quantitative skills and our understanding of the natural world. It fosters the development of our creativity. It permits us to experience other times, other places, other languages, other cultures.

Let me pause for a moment on the issue of language, since it is very close to my own interests. For the most part, foreign language training has failed in this country. Those of us who were lucky enough for whatever reasons to get past the third or fourth year of a language in college were able to begin to reap some of the benefits of that language beyond what we were taught. We began to understand the profound connections between language and culture, connections that were rarely, if ever, a part of what was taught in the classroom. The French have an expression, "To learn a language is to gain a life," and by that they mean that the acquisition of a second language enables one to see beyond the limitations of one's own culture and to realize that other cultures view the world differently.

We live in a world economy in which Marshall McLuhan's global village has become a reality. English exerts a powerful linguistic hegemony; you don't need to learn Japanese to buy a hamburger at the McDonald's in Tokyo. However, if you want to understand how the Japanese think, the surest way to do so is through their language. We take the Roman alphabet for granted in America, and it provides a way of organizing everything from telephone books to encyclopedias. The Japanese also have encyclopedias, and yet, because of their language, they organize them very differently. To understand these cultural differences, one must begin with language, and this is a lesson that will remain with students long after they have forgotten how to conjugate a verb.

Learning a language is a Janus-like experience; we look forward into a new language and culture and backward at our own with an altered perspective. The liberal arts encourage us to do the same thing--to look backwards and forwards, to be open to new ideas--to ideas that are different from our own, to ideas that challenge our preconceptions--and to debate these ideas in an atmosphere of tolerance and civility. A liberal education prepares us for citizenship as well as for a career.

But there is another dimension to a liberal arts education. Such an education is also the best preparation for the leisure hours that will grow as the job week shrinks and our life spans increase. The liberated mind provides a store of capital upon which an individual can draw continually. It is a resource that is both personal and social, contributing to the well-being of the individual as well as the public good.

How--as we move into the 21st century--can we best offer a liberal arts education in a large, public research university? We need to question the model of an undergraduate education that has dominated the American university for nearly a century. Are there other models that might accomplish our goals more effectively? More efficiently?

We might begin by characterizing the desirable features of a new undergraduate program. I can imagine that this new program would have a strong international component (involving the knowledge of a foreign culture, its language and literature) and would encourage students to study abroad if possible. The ever-increasing roles that science and technology play in our lives would demand a greater attention to these subjects from all students in college. And technology itself would play a greater role in this program.

The new program should also have a strong service component, giving students an opportunity to make connections between their work in the social sciences and life beyond the university's gates. They could devote time to a project that might focus on tutoring children, working with the homeless, participating in an ecology project or working at an AIDS clinic--precisely the sorts of activities that we would hope for them to be involved in as adults. Students also would be encouraged to participate directly in the arts, as writers, composers, actors, dancers or musicians. They might discover new talents and skills; at the very least, they would gain a stronger appreciation for the arts, one that would make them the sorts of vocal supporters of the arts our society desperately needs.

The opportunity to participate in research projects with faculty members also might be a distinctive feature of this program. Let the students see what we do with our time when we are not in the classrooms, and let them participate in that process. Both parties would benefit from this experience, and the students will also then be in a position to become advocates for the academic life as adults. Clearly, the education I am envisaging is one that should lead seamlessly into life after graduation.

Such a reconsideration of the nature of the undergraduate curriculum ideally would be part of a larger re-structuring of the university as a whole, including a rethinking of the nature of traditional departmental boundaries and the disciplines they represent. We must be open to change and willing to direct it to the betterment of the education of our students and to the enrichment of our own lives as well. A new model for undergraduate education at the University of Michigan would revitalize the core of the University and reaffirm the beliefs of the faculty in the centrality of a liberal arts education. And the excitement of such a program would certainly attract students. Through extended discussions, involving faculty, students and alumni, the University of Michigan could develop a new program that would make it a national leader in educational reform.

Let the University seize the initiative and confront the pressing issues facing it with innovative new proposals. Let us reconsider the nature of the undergraduate experience, and replace the undergraduate major with a new program that develops the ideals of a liberal education for the 21st century, fosters a greater diversity of students, staff and faculty, and successfully internationalizes the University. Were we to assume the mantle of leadership among American universities, then everyone--faculty, students, staff, alumni and the citizens of the state--would reap the benefits equally.