Faculty Triads: A 21st-Century Model for Liberal Arts Education

“What’s your major?” is one of the most commonly asked questions of college students today. Given the central role of the academic major in the identity and career options of current students, it’s interesting to consider that the same question asked to one of our students in the mid-19th century would have elicited a blank stare.

The major is in fact a relatively recent construct in the long history of higher education, having been introduced at Harvard in 1910. Perhaps, however, it is now time to consider a new educational model for the 21st century. I believe the day may soon come when the best colleges and universities will experiment with structures that de-emphasize concentrating studies within a single discipline. This move will, I think, be driven by the interests of our students and the self-interest of liberal arts colleges.

Students ask, “What can I do with my major?” Too often, we respond as if the question were, “What job can I get if I major in biology (or philosophy or history or sociology)?” Our response is reasonable; after all, students have a right to expect a job upon graduation. I believe, however, that their “what can I do?” question goes much deeper than that. Students want to know what they will be able to accomplish in life.

Can a college major prepare a student to address such global problems as hunger or climate change or environmental sustainability? Many students will expect to make their contributions through their job, but the job will be meaningful only if it allows them to make a difference. Our students want to know how we will help them discern and then pursue a vocation.

Once considered old-fashioned, the term “vocation” is suddenly regaining popularity in academia. When grandparents, teachers, coaches, ministers and friends encouraged the current generation of students to build a better society, they listened.  Many of them are actively seeking a vocation, which may or may not be tied to a major, but will allow them to make a difference.

At Monmouth College we believe that the best answers to “How will I make a difference?” transcend the academic major. For three decades we have been working to blur departmental boundaries that are both restrictive and artificial.

Long before it became popular to criticize academic majors as silos that store rather than distribute knowledge, Monmouth’s intellectual leaders warned against putting students in towers without windows. The integrated learning focus that has become Monmouth’s signature is ideally suited for a generation of students who are seeking to address the difficult issues that are immune to the efforts of overly specialized education.

When I ask first-year students what they are learning in our required Introduction to Liberal Arts course, they describe with enthusiasm how ideas from one academic field are enriched by ideas from another.  It is no accident that all our required core courses have titles that transcend disciplines.  While the capstone experience at most colleges focuses on creating knowledge in a major field, our curriculum culminates in an active citizenship experience. Our new academic building, designed to integrate disparate academic disciplines, is a $40 million investment in preparing students to solve complex problems.

Thirty years of experience in integrating curricula has prepared Monmouth College to launch a bold initiative we call “Triads.” Endorsed and funded by our Board at their fall meeting, the Triads concept is a revolutionary and powerful approach to integrated learning. Beginning this year, we will hire faculty to three-member interdisciplinary teams that will focus on key global issues that challenge our idealistic students. Comprising a typical Triad will be one representative from the sciences, one from the humanities, and one from business. The focus of our initial triad will be the critical issue of food security.  Faculty working in this Triad will help our students think about how to ensure we produce enough food, that what we produce is available and affordable for all, and that the food is safe and nutritious.

The beauty of the Triads concept is that it maintains the useful structure of academic fields even as it encourages the integration of knowledge across departmental boundaries. Focusing Triads on important issues responds to a generation of students who are attracted to causes rather than bodies of knowledge. It clarifies the question of what kind of things can be done with a liberal arts degree.

The name Triads was inspired by the term given by 19th-century scientists to describe groupings of three or more elements that had similar chemical properties but dramatically different physical properties.  These elemental triads were instrumental in the discovery of the periodic trends that ultimately produced the Periodic Table of the Elements. Having begun my career teaching analytic chemistry in a liberal arts environment, I have long viewed the Periodic Table as an ideal representation of the liberal arts in that it organizes a vast amount of information in a coherent manner, thereby promoting creativity over futile attempts at rote memorization.  It is our expectation that the Triads we create will be as effective as were the triads of elements.

Most successful innovations can be traced to pre-existing core values. I believe that is true of our Triads concept, which arose from our integrated learning focus. Most innovations draw input from many stakeholders, and that was certainly the case in the many the conversations that led to the creation of Monmouth College Triads.  More important than its origin, however, is our hope that the Triads concept will be an important tool in helping a generation of young people to pursue a noble calling.

A curriculum that focuses on the integration of knowledge, a campus master plan designed to encourage faculty and students to step across departmental boundaries, and a Triad initiative that focuses our work on the important issues of the day all make Monmouth College a place to watch.

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Liberal Arts and the Question Mark

You can tell a lot about an organization or a person by what it is most quick to defend.  Often, we defend first that which we value most.

I was therefore gratified to see our students rise to defend the liberal arts in a recent article in the student newspaper. Our institutional passion has been passed to next generation and that means that the current generation is doing its job.

I must admit that initially I was surprised by the newspaper’s bold headline, “Taking ‘Liberal Arts’ Out of MC?”  In my view, Monmouth has never been more committed to the liberal arts than it is today.  Why would anyone suggest it is being removed from the college?  Then I thought about that intriguing question mark at the end of the headline.

Declarations of what has already happened don’t end with a question mark. The student paper was not reporting that the liberal arts had been removed from Monmouth College.  Instead, it seems to me that the question mark was there to remind us that an important question for today, tomorrow, and always is whether we are doing all we can to protect and promote the liberal arts at Monmouth College.

Why do our students rise so passionately in defense of a liberal arts education?  The answer is simple:  They understand the power of the liberal arts and are committed to the belief that the future of this country depends on the success of a handful of liberal arts colleges and their small band of graduates.  Private, residential, liberal arts colleges are often referred to as the distinctively American component of our higher education system.  Their focus on civil discourse, active citizenship, creative problem solving, and sympathetic imagination has been and will be crucial to our democratic society.  If we thrive, as a sector and as an individual College, so will America; if we fail, then it is hard to be optimistic.

My response to the question that our students posed is an unequivocal “no.”  Just the opposite: the liberal arts have a bright future at Monmouth College.

Allow me to provide some assurances beyond my own. In the College’s Vision Statement we pledge to become a national example for those who want to provide excellent liberal arts education.  The four guiding principles of our Strategic Plan could be used as an outline for the most important elements of a liberal arts education.  The College’s signature course is “Introduction to the Liberal Arts” and our capstone course is “Active Citizenship.”

When I ask our first-year students to describe what they are learning in the first semester, they talk about critical thinking, close reading, effective communicating, sympathetic imagining, integrating knowledge from all their courses, becoming open-minded, and discovering how to learn from those who disagree with them.   It is readily apparent that liberal arts education is thriving at Monmouth College and no one articulates that point better than our students.

Every time our faculty members are faced with an opportunity to choose, they come down on the side of liberal arts education.  The most recent example was a year ago when they opted for the arduous task of restructuring our curriculum to privilege deep learning over content exposure.  While both of these elements of learning are important, the very best liberal arts colleges privilege deep learning. So did our faculty.

Why then, did the question of the College’s commitment to the liberal arts recently come up?  What was it that made our students sufficiently nervous to write the story with the provocative headline? Perhaps the quotation marks around the term “liberal arts” provides a clue.  The question being posed, I think, is do we use the term “liberal arts” enough and, if not, does downplaying the term mean that we are not committed to the concept that it defines?

Clearly it is a term we use regularly.  I am told that it appears more than 700 times on our website!  But, our student reporters are accurate; we have made a conscious effort to replace the term with a description of the concept in some of our admission mailings.  Does the absence of the term in some of our materials indicate a secret desire to hide or even eliminate the liberal arts focus of our education?  Or is it an attempt at greater clarity and more effective promotion of the liberal arts?

I have on my desk a postcard that shows Professor Haq teaching in our outdoor classroom. Seated or stretched out on the ground, paying careful attention, are 18 of our students.  Across the top of the picture is the phrase “What the world needs now…”   On the back of the card, that thought is completed with the sentence:  “Now, more than ever, the world needs strong, creative, critical thinkers and problem solvers.”  The phrase “liberal arts” does not appear anywhere on the card. Clearly, that could easily have been done.  After all, what the world needs is liberal arts education. What we decided to do instead was list characteristics of those who have benefited from a liberal arts education rather than simply using the phrase itself.

From this example that is about a year old, one might argue that we were promoting liberal arts education as a concept rather than as a phrase.  Were we rejecting or hiding our liberal arts character?  I think not. We knew that some readers would read “liberal arts education” and think “strong, creative, critical thinkers and problem solvers” but we worried that others outside our community would not make that connection.

But, clearly, some of our students believe the issue is a bit more complex.  And, I am persuaded that they are right.  One can make a strong argument that the liberal arts are so important to our country’s future that we should take every opportunity to clarify and promote our commitment.  That might be true even, or especially, when our message is directed at those who have no perception or even a misperception of what it means to pursue a liberal arts education.  After all, words are important symbols and we use them even when we are not certain what they mean.  Many of us recited the pledge of allegiance to the flag in kindergarten before we knew the meaning of allegiance or indivisible.  Some of us recite various creeds on Sunday morning even if many around us do not know the meaning of some of the mysterious words we are using.

Although many in the academic community cringe when marketing terminology like “branding” is applied to colleges, the student newspaper reporter and editor appreciate the importance of establishing a brand.  They remind us that using the term “liberal arts” will cause some to associate us with an impressive group of colleges. Even if those individuals don’t know the meaning of the term they know that it describes a good brand.

As always, we show wisdom when we listen to what our students are saying. In this case, our students are telling us that there is value in taking every opportunity to highlight both the liberal arts education we provide and the terms we use to describe it. Being able to accurately describe what makes a Monmouth College education special is important.  Equally important is promoting the ancient term that will help others verbalize what they see happening at Monmouth College.

As we look forward to achieving our Vision, we can imagine a day in which the general public will value a liberal arts education because they associate “liberal arts” with the achievements of our graduates.  Indeed, there is value in knowing both what we do and what to call it.

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