One of the huge – and insufficiently studied – differences between North America and European higher education is the way programs are structured, at least as far as Arts and Sciences go.
In most of Europe, entering a program in (say) history means you have to learn a set field of knowledge and skills. By entering into a 90-credit program in a particular field, you have a fair idea of which courses you will be taking over the next three years because a large proportion of the courses are set. North America used to be like that too – a century ago. But then we started to diverge, mainly because of three events.
The first, in the late nineteenth century, was when Harvard decided that students as well as faculty should have this really neat idea called “academic freedom”. For professors, that meant freedom to teach; for students it meant freedom to learn – i.e. pick your own subjects. This took a few decades to filter across the continent but by the 1920s it was pretty standard. The second was when, for reasons of financial and administrative convenience, everyone adopted “credits” as the standard method of monitoring academic progress which coincidentally provided a way of chopping curricula into various sub-units of varying sizes. And the third was the process after WWII – ably described by Louis Menand in his The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University – wherein the idea of curricular “breadth” was deemed not to require an actual set curriculum on the old (European) model but rather could be satisfied by taking any one of a number of courses which fit into specific buckets. So, for instance, we could say it was important for students to learn about Asian Civilizations, but refrain from making them take a general integrative survey course on the subject because that film course on Kurosawa counted instead. This was excellent for professors because it meant they could teach more or less what they liked (indeed, it was precisely the Kurosawa profs who led the charge on this) but it left the curriculum more fractured and students were left trying to figure out how to thread meaning through their disparate courses.
The problem of bringing meaning to curricula (and to be clear again, I’m talking Arts and Sciences here, not the more professional faculties where accreditation takes care of the problems of meaning and integration), is the subject of a rather good book which came out last year called Degrees That Matter: Moving Higher Education Systems to a Learning Systems Paradigm, by Natasha A. Jankowski and David W. Marshall. The basic question Jankowski and Marshall have is: how do we make curriculum meaningful to students? One answer they provide is to make curriculum “transparently purposeful, substantive, clearly aligned with their personal goals, and expressive of explicitly defined institutional learning goals[.]”
This, though, is far from simple. Curriculum belongs to the faculty and getting them to change curricula which are often still geared towards very specific disciplinary goals is not always easy (having seen some “learning outcomes statements” from a number of Ontario universities over the past year, I am constantly floored at how narrowly some profs conceive their responsibility to be in terms of educating students). And even where there is some desire to change, there is a good deal of cynicism because, as the authors note, a lot of previous curriculum reform has been based on fads and box-checking rather than genuine engagement.
What Jankowski and Marshall lay out in this book are the experiences of curriculum reform as it has played out over dozens of institutions which have participated in two Lumina Foundation projects, the Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP) and the Tuning Project, the latter of which is an adaptation of a European concept of the same name. Fair warning: it’s not a book for the layperson, it gets jargon-heavy sometimes, to its detriment. But where it shines is in the way it lays out, based on years of experience, the things institutions, faculties and departments must do to have the necessary, difficult and honest discussions needed to drive curriculum change, and also the kinds of resources institutions need to put behind curriculum reform in order to make it happen.
As loath as most are to admit it, most of the big issues in higher education are, at heart, issues of curriculum. We don’t like to talk about this because change is hard to do. But at least with this book, there’s a pathway to a better place.