Mid-November Thoughts

14 November

The next decade in the evolution of Liberal Arts education will see enormous changes in appearance, content, technologies and dramatis personae. At Washington & Lee the specific manifestations will certainly include

Each of these is a challenge/opportunity for the TLRG.

We can also anticipate that some aspects of W&L will not change: the Greek system will continue to define much of the social life of most students, departments will change in personnel but not in basic structure or number, and the administrative and financial structure of the university will not change significantly, though external resources (particularly grants) may become more significant contributors to academic finance and planning. Most of our students will continue to see their undergraduate education as preparation for traditional careers (and graduate programs) in law, medicine, business --though many will eventually find themselves in non-traditional occupations. We will remain a college based on a residential face-to-face community, but we can expect to see our relative isolation diminish: we will be more and more connected to and involved with the world's concerns and problems.

The survival of W&L is not an issue (though it may be for less well-founded Liberal Arts institutions), and some of the problems and opportunities that assail larger universities aren't likely to trouble us: it is unlikely that we will need to worry about competition from external credential-granters, or the needs of a growing non-traditional student body, or most issues of Distance Education.

W&L is committed to a "Liberal Arts" identity which sees the development of "critical thinking skills" as a primary objective and the expected outcome of close relationships with teaching faculty. Just what those "skills" are is somewhat nebulous, and how to teach them (other than by example) is even slipperier (but see members.tripod.com/~catfan/Critical.htm for a nice weblet on the general subject). Here's a handy definition:

"Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.

Critical thinking can be seen as having two components: 1) a set of information and belief generating and processing skills and abilities, and 2) the habit, based on intellectual commitment, of using those skills and abilities to guide behavior."

--from Defining Critical Thinking by Michael Scriven and Richard Paul [draft statement for the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking, formerly at http://www.sonoma.edu/cthink/University/univclass/Defining.nclk]

(I would like to add explicit reference to research, but I like the fact that the pivot point is information). A quick look at Annie for library holdings in the realm of Critical Thinking turns up these recent books:
CALL NO. BF441 .H246 1997.
AUTHOR Halpern, Diane F.
TITLE Critical thinking across the curriculum : a brief edition of thought and knowledge / Diane F. Halpern.
IMPRINT Mahwah, N.J. : L. Erlbaum Associates, 1997.

CALL NO. ZA4201 .D65 1999.
TITLE Doing Internet research : critical issues and methods for examining the Net / Steve Jones, editor.
IMPRINT Thousand Oaks, Calif. : Sage Publications, c1999.

CALL NO. LB1060 .H3456 1997.
TITLE Handbook of academic learning : construction of knowledge / edited by Gary D. Phye.
IMPRINT San Diego : Academic Press, c1997.

CALL NO. BF455 .F614 1998.
AUTHOR Flew, Antony, 1923-
TITLE Thinking about thinking.
TITLE How to think straight : an introduction to critical reasoning / Antony Flew.
IMPRINT Amherst, N.Y. : Prometheus Books, 1998.

CALL NO. BC177 .T45 2000.
AUTHOR Thayer-Bacon, Barbara J., 1953-
TITLE Transforming critical thinking : thinking constructively / Barbara J. Thayer-Bacon ; foreword by Jane Roland Martin.
IMPRINT New York : Teachers College Press, c2000.

Looking ahead

We can be certain that evolving technologies will continue to put ever-greater computing and communication power on desktops and into portable devices, and students and faculty alike will feel pressures to adopt innovations and adapt to the new possibilities. It will continue to be important to develop and support the processes of learning new skills and integrating new technologies into teaching and learning. The details are inherently unpredictable, and the main necessities are

In the immediate future, uncertainty over the academic calendar occupies the foreground of midrange planning, and obscures the outlines of the promised General Education reform process. Meanwhile, proposals for Programs (such as the Program for Education in Global Stewardship) and creative and entrepreneurial activities of individual faculty (such as the initiatives of the Course Portfolio Project) and developments beyond the confines of W&L (such as the ACS Information Literacy initiative) are altering the landscape of actual and potential curriculum. Simultaneously, the ambient level of "diversity" is rising slowly in faculty and student ranks alike, and it seems that more students are attracted by opportunities for study abroad.

The Hewlett Foundation

The Hewlett Foundation's "Guidelines for Applications" seem to emphasize support for conceptual development ("...comprehensive and critical assessment of the elements of curriculum and the organization and delivery of instruction... build institutional consensus... develop or renew an institutional vision..."), and the Foundation doesn't look to be a likely source for support for what I would characterize as "practical" hardware- and software-centered projects, or for such specific needs as funding for release time and other course development expenses. Kathy's suggestion of Information Age implications as the focus for development of a Proposal makes sense in this "conceptual" context, but I think we could perhaps reach for more: I wonder if Hewlett Foundation support wouldn't be appropriate for the whole process of developing General Education reform (which we might think of as General Education for the Information Age), which really ought to be based on something more than patching up the carcass of what we've inherited from the past. A careful study of alternatives to more-of-same, conducted over at least a year and involving the whole campus community, would make much more sense than the (all too predictable) committee recommendations and endless faculty meeting wrangling.