Liberal Arts Curriculum

Daniel Kontowski on the freedom of students, prescribed curriculum and a ‘cafeteria’ model of education

videos | June 14, 2021

Just as there are many ways to interpret the goal or the ideal of liberal arts education, there are also many ways or many means in which it has historically been happening. Following the discussions in Russia about the introduction of the 2+2+2 curriculum and hearing some people making connections between this policy proposal and the idea of the liberal arts education, I think all of us can benefit from a small reminder about what are the typical ways of structuring curricula in liberal arts institutions.

Historian Peter Jones on the seven liberal arts, first textbooks and drinking as part of the student culture
The first and the oldest one actually is a prescribed curriculum. While many people would tell you that the liberal arts education is all about choice, we need to understand that for centuries, up until the 19th century, it wasn’t about choice at all. The curriculum was prescribed, there was a set of books that all of the students were learning, or set of subjects that they were taking, and in that sense there was an agreement, a cultural or a political agreement, however you interpret that, that to develop the person as a free human being, you are not giving them freedom, you are preparing them, you shape them in a very particular way because this is the tried and tested way of getting them to the place in which they will use their freedom wisely. Prescribed curriculum for centuries was about doing a set of particular courses that we typically would call the trivium and quadrivium, but then they kind of grew bigger. They introduced first the natural sciences, then they introduced other languages and some of the disciplines like history that were not originally in the curriculum.

The benefit of this curriculum is that for every person that graduates you can assume what they have learned, you can assume what they experienced in their education: it is clear what this education stands for. The problem with that, of course, is that not everyone likes that, and it’s very difficult to agree on that type of a curriculum even within one institution, not to mention the country. So we can see that in our elementary and secondary education there is still a model of a prescribed curriculum that is getting in some countries into tracking, that is getting to some distinction at the secondary level, but there is a kind of general understanding that all of the students, all of the pupils should learn how to read and how to write and how to count, because without it you cannot go forward. So in this sense, this curriculum is prescribed.

On the opposite side of this approach you can say that there should be no limitations on the freedom of a student about what they should be learning, that you either believe that the student is adult and they should be making their choices and they should bear responsibility for that, or you, for example, believe that the main role of the university is to expose students to advanced knowledge and there is just no way to map all of the ways in which that can successfully happen, so the students should be given the freedom to choose the courses.

Perhaps, in many cases, they should be given an academic advisor that will be discussing with them all the choices, that is experienced and that can tell them: well, you are making wrong choices, or: why don’t you do that? or: what is your goal that taking those courses is going to take you there?

So this is a model of an open curriculum basically in which there are no restrictions, so you study for a certain time and then after you pass certain number of courses or you feel you’re ready, you leave the institution and you become an educated person. The benefit of that is, of course, that students have a lot of freedom and they are more or less happy about it. But the problem is that not all of them would: many of them will find themselves confused, many of them will find themselves anxious, some of them will graduate with a complete mess of courses that it’s just not clear why they have taken them and they maybe regret doing that. And of course, there is a problem about quality and comparability of the results across those different projects.

If we take a radical example of a prescribed curriculum, we do not see it very often in higher education institutions that claim the liberal arts model today, but there are examples, for example, in the modern liberal arts in Winchester students are basically not choosing courses because there are not enough students, and the idea of the curriculum is fairly set. In Gutenberg the liberal arts program is actually focused on reading classical literature in Latin and in ancient Greek, and they do very little (if any) electives at all because the point of the curriculum is clear, it is a set kind of discipline, and you just follow that.

Daniel Kontowski on the idea of liberal education, its learning outcomes and the consumerist approach to education
The open curriculum is also not that popular as you would think. It was pioneered in the Brown University and, for example, in Hampshire college when students famously were given no grades, only a written evaluation, where students were able to develop their particular personalities in the way that fits them. It created a big number of artists but it also was struggling financially recently for probably the same reasons. This model has been imported by institutions like University College Maastricht in the Netherlands that claim that this is the only real way of doing liberal arts education when you maximize the amount of freedom for students and you can track them how they are using this freedom because they will choose different strategies of optimizing their curriculum according to this open curriculum model. So there are ways to make it accredited, there are ways to make it work; it’s not going to work for everyone, but those are kind of two different radical examples.

But there are at least two other models in between. One model is something that is a combination of a core, a major and electives which is probably one of the most famous although not the most popular models of doing education in liberal arts education in which you have one part of the curriculum that is prescribed for every student, then you have some other parts that are prescribed for students who want to graduate with a diploma in something particular, so these are major courses that they are taking. They are either prescribed or not, but you kind of have three parts of your curricular plate: you have what is taken by everyone, what is taken just by the specialists and then something that is chosen directly by you meaning the electives.

For example, Colombia is still having a decent core curriculum. Core curricula have risen and fallen during the 20th century in the US, first as a reaction to the postulates of open curriculum and losing the integral character of the curriculum, but then they were accused that there is less and less of a need for a core an increasingly specialized university and also the content of the core is just super difficult to agree on.

Many institutions, ourselves included, are fighting over what should be in the core, whether there is a point of requiring all the students to take those particular courses, or even if we agree that they all should be taking a course in great books, then you have the next question: what should be those great books that all of them should read.

As you can imagine, when intelligent people are trying to get into an argument about the academic stuff, this discussion might never end, and this is one of the reasons why operationally more and more universities have abandoned the model of a coherent core for all of the students and moved to something that is called the distribution requirement model.

That model means that although we agree that students should achieve certain learning outcomes or should be exposed to certain disciplines or system ways of thinking or certain ways of communication, they should at the same time not be required all of them in an indiscriminate manner to do the same course. So some students will fulfill a science requirement by taking the introduction to physics course which is known as easy, but this is what they do. Others will satisfy that by another course that is, for example, more advanced or closer to something that they are interested in, or in astronomy, or in the space travel, or in microbiology. So the idea behind the distribution requirement is that there is more than one way to satisfy the requirements set in the curriculum, and it is not a capitulation for the institution to admit that.

The problem with that, however, is that back in the 80s this model, when it became very very popular in the US, has been accused of being something of a cafeteria model of education. So you are looking for – okay, I need to eat a soup, which soup do I like? Okay, I don’t like those soups but I will choose this one. And then you end up having a meal that is constructed by a range of courses chosen like that for a range of better or worse reasons, and at the end of the day there is still no coherence in your educational model, but at least the customer is satisfied. So the conservatives in the US were asking: why do we proceed with something like that?

On the other hand, the progressives were also not really happy with the distribution model because it allowed students to avoid taking certain courses that were deemed beneficial for them by the society: for example, courses on the contemporary race problems in America. Some people believe they should be required for all the students, not just the courses in how government operates or not. Others believe that there should be a choice about that.

So in those four ways we see how universities are struggling with the same problems that we have in our lives and how our societies are disagreeing about how to do things. But I think it’s important to remember that each of those models have some benefits and have some drawbacks obviously, and people who are responsible for designing curricula and especially for implementing policies should be aware of what are the possible options (there are more options than just these four) and look for something that fits their institution, something that is feasible and something that can fit the vision that they particularly have for their own institution. I think that that will bring us a lot of good things down the road.

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I think I believe in a core curriculum that is not useful, because there are at least two different ways in thinking about the core. One is – okay, let’s just make sure that each of the majors is represented. For example, here we have seven majors, let’s have seven subjects that are kind of introductory for the major, so the student is exposed, and by the time they go to choose their major, they will have a chance to know what should work for them. But I honestly don’t think that it resolves any of our problems because it will still not be enough or it will be still too much for different people. I believe that the core is attractive because it allows us to require all the students to take some subjects that they would have never chosen themselves and some subjects that would have never attracted big enough number of students to become their own major.

I think the well-designed core curriculum is a statement of what the institution thinks about the world. It’s a statement about whom do we want our graduates to be regardless of what individual choices they will make and what trajectory choices they are attracted to. I think that the core model is the only one that allows you as an administrator to work on real educational innovations. It is the most burdensome to implement, the most burdensome to even agree and to conceive, but I personally believe that this model allows us as institutions to have conversations about what education should be, why are we here, what do we want to achieve. I think this is the type of a conversation that if we are not having at the universities, we can just as well close tomorrow.

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PhD in Higher Education, School of Advanced Studies, University of Tyumen
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