Thursday, July 23, 2009

Innovation and Liberal Arts

Necessity, it is said, is the mother of invention. Who the father is remains unclear. Perhaps the less said about that the better.

We had a retreat the last couple of days, themed out as a summer camp. I jokingly told a couple of colleagues that it wasn't as bad as I'd hoped--we never actually used the ropes for anything. I'd imagined tying each other up as trust exercises or something (!). It was nice to get away from the office and the routines I've accumulated. Some new ideas were able to percolate.

One topic of conversation was a local success story: High Point University, which has rather miraculously transformed itself in recent years. You can see a google-created timeline here. President Nido Qubein started work in early 2005. He wrote an article called "Real World 101: A New Paradigm for Higher Education," which describes the innovation at the heart of his vision. You can find it here at University Business, among lots of other places. He asks a question I asked a few posts back: what is the purpose of higher education? His answer is that while there are many reasons, one encompasses them all: to prepare for life in the real world.
The corridors of corporate America demand a different skill set than the hallowed halls of academia. We must do a better job of teaching these skills.
As part of the High Point solution, all students now take a Life Skills course. I summarize the course objectives below:
  • Self-esteem
  • Goal setting
  • Leadership
  • Fiscal literacy and stewardship
  • Health and wellness
  • Time management
  • Communication skills
  • Etiquette and protocol
Some of this is traditional orientation course fare (goal setting and time management, for example). Most of these are non-cognitives. It's interesting to compare this list to the High Point mission statement. I've extracted and summarized my interpretation of learning out of the longish formal statement here:
  • Intellectual inquiry
  • Breadth of knowledge
  • Command of written and spoken language
  • Insight into ethical behavior
  • Critical thinking
  • Aesthetic appreciation
  • Innovation
  • Skill and knowledge within professional disciplines;
  • To promote the balanced development of students' cognitive, social and physical capacities;
  • Development of character, personal responsibility and a sense of civic duty
  • Exploration of faith and humane values within a Judeo-Christian context
This is a long list, but usual liberal arts fare that coincides pretty well with the AAC&U LEAP initiative. LEAP's goal isn't self-described as meeting a need for innovation, but seems to be more an attempt at introspection and perhaps standardization.
LEAP is AAC&U’s primary vehicle for advancing and communicating about the importance of undergraduate liberal education for all students. LEAP seeks to engage the public with core questions about what really matters in college, to give students a compass to guide their learning, and to make a set of essential learning outcomes the preferred framework for educational excellence, assessment of learning, and new alignments between school and college.
There is the practical goal there of alignment, but not with job markets. This is the interesting question that High Point is addressing: how will liberal arts evolve to better meet demand? It's no secret that the words "liberal" and "arts" do not immediately lead the unsophisticated reader to assume that this has much to do with career preparation. I think that High Point could be the leading edge of second-tier liberal arts schools beginning to distinguish themselves by innovative approaches to the traditional curriculum and methods of delivery. I have some ideas about that, but they'll have to wait.

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