How to Save the Dinosaurs
The first is a renewed emphasis on interdisciplinary studies, the integration of multiple liberal arts and sciences. A commitment to an interdisciplinary learning approach would create a distinctive educational experience at individual colleges. For example, a college might promote that its liberal arts studies are unique because its courses all integrate science and philosophy or global perspectives.
At the conference I described in last week’s blog, some who supported this position suggested that faculty typically resist interdisciplinary approaches because of their deep and active focus on their majors. They are trained in a discipline, research in a discipline and teach in a discipline.
Colleges may need to offer both extrinsic incentives and appeal to intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation might include public advocacy, rewards that include financial incentives, tenure criteria and conditions of hire. Intrinsic motivation might include a degree of autonomy, the freedom to pilot unique courses without repercussions, and public recognition.
These approaches and opportunities may be limited at small institutions with few liberal arts faculty. This reality leads to the second strategy, collaboration. Some people describe higher education as an “ivory tower,” separated from the real world and practical issues (a topic for a future blog). But too often the potential “towers” are surrounded by wide and deep moats.
Colleges can and should work together on collaborative approaches that might include consortium agreements, shared faculty positions, faculty exchanges, joint programs, and the integration of groups of students. Depending on the nature and history of the colleges, collaboration can also be an effective way to increase understanding of diversity and global perspectives.
The third idea is the increased use of technology. Many liberal arts faculty (and I, who majored in English and Theology and still teach periodically in the Humanities) use technology in limited ways. The creative use of technology for the transmission of information and perspectives, as the methodology for student interaction, and the framework for interdisciplinary and collaborative initiatives will likely engage the students in ways that make sense to their worlds. Not too long ago I thought how interesting it would be to teach Shakespeare or the Bible through social media (e.g., if Moses or Hamlet were on Facebook).
The final strategy relates to mission. While I clearly believe in liberal education, I think liberal arts colleges need to consider the addition of more career preparation programs. The fact is that fewer and fewer students can afford to only study the liberal arts. We need to help them understand and appreciate liberal education, but do so in the context of both their intended profession and the rest of their lives.
We can save the dinosaurs! And the benefits are many. What do you think?