There was a time when the idea of a general education curriculum in a research university embraced the notion of a broad and diverse community of ideas. The aim was to draw on the rich complexity and constantly changing fields of research to encourage students on their own to wander, explore and think about things; to shape their own path and develop for themselves an understanding or even a vision of the world around them. Trying to engineer learning outcomes was neither practically possible nor particularly relevant to the process. The effects of the experience were understood to be as variable, unquantifiable and unknowable as the intellects, encounters and long-term life trajectories of the individuals involved.
The academy today is, however, a world of top-down administrative structures where the intellectual benefits of the unpredictable are eschewed. This is a relatively recent condition in which learning is gradually being replaced by teaching; teaching is being replaced by pedagogy; and the process of developing ideas is being replaced by rituals of method, performance and evaluation. This new structure emphasizes the practice of teaching, the predictability of learning and the quantification of short-term outcomes — a positive feedback loop stimulating reflexive rituals of method and performance.
UNC is now at a crossroads of curricular change, falling somewhere along this spectrum between the models expressed above. We are being asked to replace the current curriculum, “Making Connections,” with a new one called “IDEAs in Action.” Both have impressive titles and lofty goals of cultivating thoughtful and responsible citizens of the world.
The former asks students to select their own courses with purpose or out of intellectual curiosity among a diversity of subjects, ideas and approaches. The latter shapes the student’s experience to achieve prescribed sets of desired outcomes and applications, called “capacities.”
Now, I am skeptical that we can actually prove that our current curriculum is somehow failing to produce thoughtful and responsible citizens of the world, or that the new version will somehow be more effective in doing so. But before we embrace this radical shift in curricular structure, we need yet to have an open discussion about what constitutes a Liberal Arts education, and to explore fully the implications of such a change for the intellectual life of diverse communities of the College and the University.