This past year I have been a member of our college’s curriculum review task force.  For those of you who are not familiar with academia, curriculum is probably the most politically charged issue on college campuses.  Curriculum is not only tied to the heart of education but also tied to how resources are allocated.  But the item that I would like to discuss today is the idea of the liberal arts.

Morningside College is a traditional small private liberal arts college.  I used to think that I knew what that meant, but the more and more that I think about this idea, the less sure that I have a strong sense of what I think liberal art should be.  Let me explain why briefly.

I think that there might be two very general ways that the liberal arts is generally conceptualized: 1) as a broad base of knowledge in several different areas of study and 2) as having an interdisciplinary approach to the gaining and creation of knowledge.  On the surface it would appear that these two are basically the same.  But I would argue that indeed they are distinct yet related.

The first approach – having a broad base of knowledge, I consider to be one of the most common ways that colleges and universities think of their liberal arts programs.  This is usually shown by having some form of distribution form of a general education (take a class from several different fields).  My undergraduate college took this view.  I had to take classes in science, math, language, social science, art, writing, etc.  Morningside also takes this approach with requirements in categories called empirical, quantitative, global awareness, creative expression, ethics and personal values, religion, and service learning.

The second approach – an interdisciplinary approach to the creation and learning of knowledge – is probably more commonly found in colleges that have so-called ‘core’ general education requirements (a set of classes that all students take that are interdisciplinary in nature).

Now the big difference I see is that if you believe that liberal arts is a broad base of knowledge in several areas, this does not necessarily assume that those areas are viewed in an integrated context.  I know in my undergraduate college there was not a whole lot of overlap between my general ed. classes nor did I see any attempt at this.  This is fine, and I can see the value in this.  But the more that I get involved in curricular issues and within my own teaching I find myself valuing more how I might be able to integrate all of these knowledge areas.

If we value a liberal arts that assumes an interdisciplinary approach (which I find myself leaning more and more toward), how can a curriculum do something like this?  Do you go to a core?  These have difficulties in scheduling, staffing, and less flexibility in course choice?  How could you make a general ed with a distribution format more integrative?  You need to know what other professors do in their courses in departments that you are not a member of.

Because I am currently on a committee looking to revise our general education curriculum this has become both a value issue and a practical issue for me.  Do we impose interdisciplinary approaches in our core through special core classes, or can people trust each other enough to build on each others work and to communicate accurately exactly what knowledge and skills we do in our general education classes?

I do not know the answer, but I tend to currently lean more toward the latter at this point in time.  Time, evidence, and constraints may change my mind, but regardless I will continue to fight for the liberal arts as an interdisciplinary approach to learning, teaching, knowledge, and skills.