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  • Curricular Commons
  • Jeremy Cohen

Ferment in the Field

The decision to focus this issue's general education scholarship around a theme, "Ferment in the Field," began with a question: Is there ferment among those interested in liberal education? Given the cookie-cutter similarity of so many programs, the answer was not a foregone conclusion.

The question is not a simple one. If there are stirrings of agitation for change to liberal education's status quo, what are they based upon? A belief in a Golden Age prescribed curriculum that would have been familiar to academics and undergraduates a century ago? A twenty-first-century faith in the power of massive open online courses to overcome economic and political barriers to access to higher education? A growing insistence (some would say, an intellectually smothering insistence) on quantifiable accountability under which liberal education outcomes should be subject to the same assessment criteria as more easily definable disciplinary and professional goals in engineering, business, math, or chemistry?

It has come as a relief to the editors of the Journal of General Education: A Curricular Commons of the Humanities and Sciences that this issue's "Ferment in the Field" scholars, drawn from philosophy, history, earth sciences, academic advising, writing, eighteenth-century British literature, and other disciplines, are challenging faculty, administrative officers, and their legacy—students—to bring increased levels of intellectual fervor to liberal education. There is considerable ferment in the field. There is, among the journal's authors and elsewhere, agitation for an explicit reconnection to ideals, values, and substance—and yes, to ongoing assessment with sufficient rigor and focus to nurture intellectual growth among faculty and students alike.

Some, such as University of California-Merced's Thomas Hothem, remind readers in the pages that follow that higher education succeeds when it "encourage[s] students to pursue scholarly inquiry on their own and in context." [End Page ix] Implicit in these goals is the need to develop general education curriculum and pedagogy through which students are encouraged to learn to accept responsibility for creating and benefiting from multidisciplinary approaches to intellectual discovery. Discovery, however, is not just about student effort. Teachers and academic advisers are essential participants in a shared-responsibility bond with students in which educators are most effective when they actively help students through caring, innovative, and rigorous guidance that enables undergraduates to see the world anew.

Stanford philosopher Nel Noddings is concerned that the spirit of the liberal arts is often ignored, as evidenced by a too common failure among faculty to help students find the connections among what on the surface might otherwise seem to be unrelated disciplinary silos. Helping students to find connections among mathematics, philosophy, religion, fiction, poetry, history, and other disciplines is rarely associated with courses students complete to receive either general education or disciplinary credit.

At least part of the liberal arts problem, New York University historian Thomas Bender says, is that "higher education is no longer considered a social good." To Bender, the "impoverished framing of higher education seriously diminishes the ideal of liberal learning, perhaps even ruling it out." Do institutional structures and the disciplinary loyalties they demand create student and faculty expectations that support vocational and consumerist thinking and behaviors at the cost of the felt commitment to general intellectual growth and familiarity with knowledge and discovery necessary to sustain democratic ideals? Syracuse chancellor Nancy Cantor and co-author Peter Englot, a linguist, believe that there is today an obligation to restore the "balance of private and public purposes of general education."

Eric White is an internationally respected scholar on, and practitioner of, academic advising. White is concerned that it might already be too late to save general education. Nonetheless, he extends a provocative proposal, one that would require faculty to rethink the advising role and to embrace advisers as true colleagues and educators. Academic advisers are academic educators, White reminds us, and few in the university organization are better positioned to help students frame constructive understandings of general education's nonvocational goals and purposes.

Earth sciences scholar Tanya Furman notes that many general education faculty are in fact unclear themselves about the relevance of the general education curriculum. It is no...