Integrative General Education White Paper

by CarlD

First some context. As I may have mentioned once or twice, this year I got sucked into my university’s general education reform process, against the lessons of experience, interests of serenity, and focus on the teaching mission. I did this by reluctantly saying I would be willing to represent the Arts and Humanities on a committee no one else wanted to serve on, and because after three years of intensive collective deliberation, in committee and plenary, my colleagues had managed to produce a draft proposal that took a bloated, aimless mess of a core curriculum and turned it into a skeletal, aimless mess of a core curriculum.

In some sense I was and am fine with the latter. It was done intelligently, if not creatively, freed up a lot of units for minors or the elective explorations that are part of the heart of a liberal education, and went a long way toward fixing the problem that we were making many of our students loathe the liberal arts by subjecting them to a seemingly endless series of browbeatings. But even though the theme of integrative education had figured prominently and encouragingly in early discussions, by the final proposal it had completely vanished; so that like the old core, the new one had no conceptual or pedagogical coherence other than assertion that each individual course addressed a ‘goal’ and therefore was in its way essential to the formation of an educated person.

The modification I suggested to the reform committee, after a lot of discussion at the A&H level, was to add what we at first called a ‘cluster’ and later a ‘linked learning experience’. This is three thematically linked classes, from at least two different schools, taken together in one semester. Just that, for now – no requirement of faculty coordination or any other formally interdisciplinary apparatus. The idea is simply to, at least that once, show students explicitly a ‘liberal’ approach to question and problem formation, investigation, and perhaps problem-solving, in which disciplinary knowledge-in-depth is triangulated, reconfigured and brought into more widely effective alignments by interdisciplinary knowledge-in-breadth.

Despite the fact that to some of us this seemed like pretty tame stuff, the LLEs instantly became a bone of contention. As far as I know, no one disagrees that integrated learning is a ‘good thing’. However, in the larger discussions over the new proposal with the linked learning component, it became clear that a significant fraction of the faculty in general and the A&H faculty in particular did not see integrated learning as needing any particular attention; going so far as to assume it was a nice but inessential bonus, and/or something that could be expected to happen automatically if only a series of good courses were taken. As if that was how we all got it, ‘assuming facts not in evidence’ as the lawyers say. And certainly for many of us who have struggled our way to some kind of integrative intelligence, this seems like it must be true; although I can personally point to many, many experiences at home and at school from a particular kind of teacher that pulled me in this direction, along with plenty of others that tried to push me away.

But that’s the thing – I don’t know anyone who gets the importance of integrative learning who thinks it’s a luxury adjunct of a good education that can be left to chance. It’s the one thing that distinguishes ‘higher’ education from the various worthy technical educations, like plumbing, heating and cooling, business, nursing, history, and philosophy. It’s so important I negotiated away all of the required History classes to make room for a faint whisper of it. Not because the History classes aren’t good, or because there’s nothing essential to learn from history, but because someone who can learn and make connections responsibly will find their own way to history, literature, biology, statistics or whatever’s needed, and learn it a lot better than if it were jammed down their throats without purpose or context. (Here I remain strongly influenced by Dyke the Elder’s remark that he took Calculus three times, but didn’t learn the calculus until he needed it to do something else with; which in turn sensitized me to a vast educational research literature that says the same thing.)

But for a passionate fraction of Arts and Humanities, and Sciences too as it turned out, what matters far more than intentional integration is a critical mass of essential knowledges. Students are scientifically ignorant, so they need two science courses. They’re historically ignorant, so they need two history courses. Our uni has a religious tradition, so at least one Biblical religion class. Etc. These colleagues produced and published a draft alternate reform proposal, without the linked learning but with a couple more sciences and histories and whatnot; then withheld it from formal consideration out of admirable collegiality, and in confident anticipation that the full faculty would never vote for this scary, cumbersome linked learning stuff anyway. Sure enough, the full faculty voted for the linked learning proposal by a 60/40 margin. Now the opposition is bringing forward their proposal anyway, in a last heroic play to save what they can of the old core.

Which leads me to the actual matter of this post, an integrative general education white paper I’m working on for possible distribution as part of the reform committee’s advocacy for the proposal we just passed. This is still pretty rough, and I invite discussion. I should say that I have entirely given up on persuading the proponents of the alternate proposal, for present purposes anyway; I now think there are conceptual, dispositional, and emotional divides that are prohibitive to bridge in the short term. So this document is intended to clarify the issues for the people who voted for the linked learning proposal the first time around, and solidify their support for that project. I’m still not sure whether to prefer a rhetorically neutral presentation or a more direct, conversational address – this is the latter:


Colleagues, although the General Education Committee is proud of the work we’ve done over these last several years, and of the faculty’s recent vote endorsing the plan so long and carefully deliberated, we welcome the opportunity to reflect further on MU’s goals and how to accomplish them. We appreciate that everyone in this discussion is motivated by commitment to get our general education core right, and to move MU to new levels of excellence.

On the surface, it may seem there is very little difference between the two proposals. The numbers work out about the same, while the new proposal adds back a couple of classes, takes out a couple of classes, and replaces the Linked Learning Experience with ‘further studies in the liberal arts’. Deciding between the proposals could be as easy as deciding if you think a required History class is more important than a required Speech class. The committee deliberated each of those decisions carefully and intentionally, but we are well aware that many other well-reasoned choices could be made.

However, this discussion is not just about nitpicking curriculum details, and therefore the committee would like to clarify what we see as the larger concepts at issue. And the one thing we would like to be clear in everyone’s mind during the coming discussion is that our plan is not a bad version of a more comprehensive core – for better or worse, it is a different concept of a core.

So first, we acknowledge that our plan omits or makes optional wonderful, important courses. Not just a few, not just a required History or a second Science or a richer engagement with foreign language. Statistics, Calculus, Genetics; Classics, Economics, Political Theory, Anthropology; World Religions, Women’s Literature, Sociology, Psychology, Ethics. Some familiarity with all of these and more is arguably essential to responsible citizenship and effective, meaningful living in the modern world.

Second, we acknowledge that our plan does not promote mastery in any of the areas it does cover. A brief foreign immersion does not create mastery of a foreign language. One Science class does not create mastery of the principles and practices of science. One Math class does not create broad-based numerical literacy. One History class does not a historian make.

Nor would two. In paring down the core’s coverage to a painful minimum in which many excellent things were lost, the committee was not just sinking to a least common denominator. We were embracing intentionally the hard fact that core curricula are not in any position to cover everything or to create broad-based mastery. Compared to the vast scope of scientific knowledge that affects our everyday lives, and the vast scope of scientific ignorance that afflicts our public discourse, two classes are as inadequate as one – two slender reeds against the flood. We think it is clear therefore that if coverage and mastery are the goals, the core is doomed to failure. We have already tried a more comprehensive coverage and found it wanting, mastery lacking. A class more or less, here or there in a much smaller core is no solution.

Fortunately, there is a much more realistic and sustainable way to think about what core curricula can accomplish. If we consider that the problem is not ignorance itself but narrowness and rigidity, a settled mind and lack of curiosity, the same class that would be an inadequate and swiftly-forgotten introduction to the vast content of a discipline can be an admirable invitation to the core concepts and investigative methods of that discipline. It can open students’ minds to new questions, new ways of thinking, new strategies of living effectively in the world, and lead them toward developing the relevant competencies themselves over a much longer lifetime than our curriculum can cover. In this model, the goal shifts from producing people who know a couple of things about a couple of things, to producing people whose curiosity is empowered, who learn actively, figure things out for themselves, work reliably without close supervision, adapt effectively to unfamiliar, complex and ambiguous situations, repurpose knowledge responsibly to meet new challenges, and problem-solve creatively.

Ideally, this shift would occur within each of the classes we teach. However, the same effect at a larger scale can be promoted through an intentional, transformative arrangement of separate classes, each doing ‘its own thing’. Just as a pile of stones is not a bridge, and a pile of flour, sugar and butter is not a cake, a pile of courses is not an education. This is where the Linked Learning Experience comes in. By bringing three different courses into simultaneous thematic alignment, linked learning engages students in multiple approaches to question and problem formation, investigation, and problem-solving, making thinking ‘outside the box’ virtually inevitable in a way separate classes simply cannot. Furthermore, through linked learning students can see directly the broader relevance and unique strengths of each field of study, enhancing their own awareness, resourcefulness, and appreciation for the value of continued learning – in the best tradition of the liberal arts.

In the committee’s view therefore, the Linked Learning Experience is the core of the core, the transformative element that takes the few credits available to the core and turns them into a real education. Linked learning is emphatically not, in our view, an optional addendum to a debate about how much of the old core we are going to keep. It is a new way forward.


15 Responses to “Integrative General Education White Paper”

  1. Going for sainthood, are you?

    Seriously, I think “By bringing three different courses into simultaneous thematic alignment, linked learning engages students in multiple approaches to question and problem formation, investigation, and problem-solving, making thinking ‘outside the box’ virtually inevitable in a way separate classes simply cannot” is a great idea. The statement, however, needs to be more concrete to be persuasive. “Multiple approaches” will be read in so many different ways by people with different backgrounds, it would be useful to specify a bit more clearly what approaches you are talking about.

  2. Your project has set me to thinking about the different undergraduate experiences that my wife Ruth, my daughter Kate, and I encountered at Reed College, the U.S. Naval Academy, and the Michigan State Honors College.

    Ruth started out as a science major but her freshman year of physics/chemistry and running into fellow students who were smarter and better prepared to be hard scientists led to her moving in other directions. Like every Reed student she had to take the year long Humanities course required of all freshmen. It combined lectures, delivered to the entire 400-strong freshman class with 8-10 student seminars with a heavy writing component. A friend and a dorm counsellor were the stimulus for signing up for a year long introduction to Sociology/Anthropology in her sophomore year. For the foreign language requirement, she continued to do Latin, of which she had done four years in high school. Her original scientific bent led her to focus on mathematical sociology. That lasted through her first year at Cornell, after which she married an anthropologist, started learning Japanese, and wound up, via a Ph.D. program in Japanese literature at Yale, as one of the best Japanese-to-English translators in her generation.

    Kate chose to be an English major at what is, besides the military stuff, primarily a science and technology school. So while she took courses on Shakespeare, Dante, and Satire in the Age of Reason, she wasn’t allowed to weasel out of the three semesters of calculus, a semester of probability and statistics, and a year each of chemistry, physics, and electrical engineering required of all midshipmen. She also picked up a lot of practical stuff, ship-driving, infantry tactics, role-playing a US Ambassador being rescued by a Seal team, during her summer training blocks. The thing that impressed me most, though, was that as soon as she became a youngster (sophomore), she was put in charge of other students younger than herself and the grade point that determined her rank in class was determined in part by how well they did. Neither at Michigan State, nor later at Cornell, did I encounter even the faintest suggestion that I was responsible for anyone but myself.

    I was lured to Michigan State by the Honors College and the freedom to take whatever I wanted to, with course requirements waived (albeit at my own risk). I wound up with a lot of logic and philosophy of science, a year of honors calculus and a quarter of probability and statistics, a substantial chunk of medieval history, and French and German to third-year level. That was where things stood at the end of my junior year, when a friend suggested that I take a summer-term course in anthropology from Marc Swartz. In my senior year, I took stuff that I thought an aspiring anthropologist should know, a non-Indo-European language (Chinese), biology (anatomy, evolution and biogeography), and linguistics (as taught in the anthropology department). My education was sketchy and full of gaps; I was, for example, a philosophy major with no exposure to continental philosophy except reading Leibniz and Nietzche in a freshman course called Philosophy and Literature. I knew that probability had something to do with the volume under a curve, but was clueless when it came to Chi-square and Spearman’s r. Nothing prepared me directly for the way I wound up making my living in Japan, working for an advertising agency, then becoming an owner-partner in a translation and copywriting shop. But things have worked out OK.

    When I look at these three examples, what sticks out at me is that, in three very different ways, we all did serious math as well as taking courses in the humanities. That was pretty good preparation when we turned to social science and could see what people were talking about from both mathematical and humanistic perspectives. In my own case, I would say that a bit more lab science, especially biology, would have been useful (I skipped biology and took a second year of AP chemistry in high school). And I now wonder, seriously, why anyone graduates from high school without a basic grasp of bookkeeping and financial statements.

    Hope this is helpful in some tangential way.

  3. I don’t know if this is helpful or not, but your issue seems as much about process as it is about the faculty’s conflicting views of general education. This piece by Stephen Trainor,

    argues that the search for consensus can interfere with the design process of imagining and filling out alternatives and getting these the support necessary to be implemented.

    Trainor proposes instead a different orientation (problem solving rather than consensus) and sequencing, whereby

    1) information is gathered and problems are identified;
    2) multiple alternative “dream” solutions are generated;
    3) criteria for evaluation of solutions are developed independently, if necessary by those who didn’t generate solutions, but input and endorsement from whole group;
    4) whole group decides which model among several alternatives best satisfies group-generated criteria.

    Since your current process has left you with some kind of stalemate and lack of support for either alternative, your option now might get both groups to collaborate on a set of criteria to evaluate your existing two options. It would skip over the problem-setting stage, but at this point you have alternatives that substantively represent the thinking of two factions of your faculty.

  4. Thanks guys, these are perceptive and helpful comments. So here are a couple more dimensions of the situation:

    1. I wish sainthood was an option.

    2. John, I’m really glad the linked learning statement is evocative. That’s what I was going for in this conceptual white paper, which is pitched at folks who already voted for it once but may need to be bucked up to do it again. The grisly details of practical execution will be handled in other parts of the propaganda, and are also well-known to anyone who cared to pay attention. But since you ask – briefly, an annual theme (something pretty softbally but pregnant with possibilities like ‘globalization’ or ‘leadership’) will be selected and published two or three years in advance. The gen ed committee will then vet proposals for courses or course modules addressing that theme. We anticipate that there will be dozens of courses and sections from all across the curriculum to choose from. Each student has only to pick any three, in any one semester during their career at MU. That’s it. So as you see, we can’t actually specify which multiple approaches – that will vary from year to year and student to student.

    As I said above, as intentional integration it’s pretty crude, sort of like throwing the students in front of the metacognition bus and hoping it hits them. But it’s better than a pile of classes with no explicit links at all, and furthermore it creates the conditions for a shift of ethos and practice that could develop into something more once this step has familiarized. It’s also pretty similar to the format of the successful interdisciplinary human development program I taught in at Cal State, which was also designed to immerse students in cognitive diversity while strategically not requiring that of the faculty. I had not fully understood the wisdom of this until now….

    3. I like your descriptions of your family’s trajectories very much. They can be read as supporting some specific competency (as you do with math) or as supporting the argument that there are many paths to successful education. As much as I appreciate people who’ve got the maths, I don’t and I hope I’m clearly an educated person. So my own commitment is to the many paths approach. The common element I see in your account plus mine is a fairly explicit engagement with cognitive diversity, and therefore development of the ability to code switch responsibly, along with a disciplined expertise acquired through a major, as the common core experience of liberally educated persons.

    If you think of your revelation about biology in relation to a coverage agenda or a code-switching agenda, I think the framework of my current debate comes clear. There are all sorts of things like biology we might turn out to need as we wend our ways through the contingencies of life. Could you have been taught enough of it in school to do the trick? How about all the other things you turned out to need, or not to need? In a finite curriculum, that way of thinking about the project just doesn’t work. But what you did have was a disposition and ability to learn on your own, and that did the trick for you again and again. So that’s what we need to be teaching as the core of a liberal education.

    4. Dave, I think you are right that there are process problems, and that consensus is a sticking point. Oddly enough, steps 1, 2, and 4 were part of our process, but there wasn’t enough focused interest in 1 and 2 to get to 3, so 4 was de facto delegated to the committee. The committee then spent years deliberating goal wording, which passed the full faculty last year and led directly to the contours of the concrete proposal. I would say the goals are generic and vaporous enough to cause problems of interpretation that didn’t become evident to most people until there was an actual curriculum proposal attached to them.

    Also oddly enough, or not given what I just said, at least one of the most upset and vocal opponents of the committee’s proposal was its leading figure and chair for the first couple years, who then exited the committee and repudiated its plan once the specifics began to coalesce. Another complicating factor is that the previous gen ed reform committee ten years ago, on which I sat and a major reason I didn’t want to do it again, came to the faculty after two years of work with three terrific proposals to choose among. The faculty deadlocked and we defaulted back to the old core. So there’s some significant leeriness about multiple proposals, although I agree if we’d committed as a faculty to a more robust process and not done a set-it-and-forget-it task dump to the gen ed committee, we’d now be in a better position to understand alternatives and their associated rationales.

    In any event, the die is cast now. If this new proposal deadlocks the faculty again we can always go back to the drawing board, but what I’m hoping is that we can get another strong vote (60/40 is a landslide in democratic politics; if Obamacare had gotten that kind of majority, the Republicans might have thought twice about the repeal agenda) and begin the process of familiarization that will clear a lot of the objections out.

  5. The odd part of this discussion is that, perhaps because of how long this seems to have gone on, I’m not seeing anything here about how student learning has been getting documented, what the existing data might be telling you about students’ various problems, or how you might document the kinds of gains you’re looking for.

    So is this simply a battle of abstract, largely tacit “values” or is there any way for evidence to be collected and assessed one way or the other? (I know that getting academics to accept evidence, especially in relation to their own practice, is difficult, but it might help here to at least define the issues better and win over the less committed)

    So one approach might be to double back to the question of what your assessments, faculty judgments and students are repeatedly identifying as the biggest problems, and show how those priorities have informed the plan. In other words, is there any way to use evidence to redirect or at least influence discussion?

  6. Well, I have not showed you that whole domain of stuff because that was not my topic, my agenda or the question I asked. Nevertheless, the fact that what seems obviously important to you has no relevance whatsoever to my situation is interesting and diagnostic. So no, we have no significant local data to speak of. No, the discussion is also not informed by educational data or analysis from the wide world of such. And no, such information is not being sought and would not be persuasive to anyone I’m dealing with if it were coated in milk chocolate and signed by Queen Victoria, which means that those of us who know it don’t bring it up so much.

    I could construct an elaborate Foucauldian or Althusserian account of why such data are not just unreliable but actively pernicious, but why? That’s not what’s going on. What’s going on is exactly the battle of abstract values, supported by the kinds of habitus amply explored by Bourdieu in his many fine investigations of the educational field.

    As for documenting gains, we’re not doing anything in particular yet. Once we start doing something in particular, we can start seeing how it works.

  7. I don’t know anything about this stuff, but I can tell you that you convinced me. I think your instinct was right about conversational vs. rhetorically neutral.

    I had a weird experience my first year of college. I went to this small Catholic university (long story) where the entire freshman class took the same set of three or four classes. All of them had to do in some way with ancient classics. So not only were there links (art/history/philosophy), but there was this huge shared experience. Something that happened in one’s daily life would often be met with a humorous Homeric or Platonic reference. And everybody got it.

    I ended up leaving after the first year and going to a big state school where there was no linking or integration, but it stuck with me. In my junior and senior year I used to challenge myself to find a way to synthesize what I was learning enough that I could turn in the same final paper for three different classes.

    “…took Calculus three times, but didn’t learn the calculus until he needed it to do something else with”

    This really strikes a chord with me. It’s meaningful not just in the obvious way, but also in the sense that students need to understand that they should be people who are about doing stuff with stuff.

  8. Hi Carl, not trying to criticize what is obviously a very fraught and difficult process, but simply observing that shifting the ground of discussion towards students, student learning, and observable evidence might take you out of the hellish discussion loop you’re finding yourself in. This is very hard to do, especially mid-stream, but if you’re either going to proceed as is, or start over again, I think it could provide some parameters to work with.

    Faculty are inclined to argue their discipline in all contexts, but in a teaching-oriented institution talking about the relative effects of this or that change on students might move the less committed, and I think it’s always better to ground these discussions in evidence, or even competing pieces of evidence, rather than a priori positions. Providing at least a framework for assessment up front, also gives you an argument that “we’ll try it and see,” and it also means that the next discussion doesn’t begin ex nihilo.

    I haven’t been discussing the arguments around the integration initiative because they seem fine to me, and completely unobjectionable, especially if you look at all the different colleges around the country that are doing one version or another of the same thing. What seems to be hanging you up is not the substance, but the process (which is never easy for these kinds of initiatives).

  9. Yes. Again, there were some early efforts along these lines but they were quickly damped by passive disinterest from one large group, and the way gen ed became a rorschach for lots of other stuff (including anxiety about new assessment regimes) for a much smaller one. For neither group is evidence of much real moment, and for the latter group it has a danger of being counterproductive.

    As you can see, I do not assess this as an Enlightenment kind of situation, and although enlightenment is usually worth a try, it’s a mistake to assume its tools are always the right ones for the job at hand. Once we get the game changed and folks are more imminently faced with doing rather than talking, the committee will start feeding resources into the environment to ease folks toward a more practical engagement.

  10. Well, good luck with all this. I’m curious to see how it all plays out, since we’re doing our own dance right now with gen ed.

  11. I am pondering the scheme you outline and what I see, from a what do students get out of this perspective, is that they will be forced to engage the same large problem from multiple perspectives and learn, best of all worlds, that combining them may be useful. Are there any mechanisms in place to prevent, for example, a student working on globalisation’s choosing courses in history, sociology and anthropology that wind up teaching the same approach?

  12. Ha! Well, you might think History and Sociology are the same approach, and having taught both I might agree. But my colleagues in Sociology do not at all agree. This ‘narcissism of small differences’, as Freud called the politics of the Balkans, is in my experience more the rule than the exception. And like the Balkans, there’s no way to win that fight. So if students are led to see past that to the common project, I’d count that as a success.

    But yes, the three classes have to come from at least two different schools, for the reason you say and also to intercept any program attempting to subvert the project by creating little captive LLEs of their own courses.

  13. @Asher, you put your finger on something. There’s always a sense in these things that ‘useful’, doing stuff with stuff, is a degradation of the disinterested quest for Truth that is the great liberal arts tradition. This is part of the high conceptual machinery that makes educational research and evidence irrelevant to some parties in the discussion. They see themselves as defenders of the faith against low barbarian incursion. That the barbarians often don’t ‘get it’ and fail seems to need no explanation.


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