The Swing of the Pendulum. Or as We Say in French, Plus Ça Change….

By Roseann O'Reilly Runte    //    Volume 24,  Number 3   //    May/June 2016

Five decades ago, university curriculums were highly structured. Faculty created and selected the most appropriate courses. They carefully defined prerequisites, prescribed the depth and breadth of inquiry, and expected outcomes. University administrators started with the essential courses and built from there. Electives were few and far between. There weren’t many frills.

Then came the 1960s and student-led revolts in the name of a politics of freedom of choice. Students called for the elimination of requirements, structures, and even formal classes with the participation of faculty members. While some extraordinarily creative and excellent results were achieved, the need for a framework, deadlines, and core content was generally realized. Without deadlines, some assignments were never completed. Classes in the quad, while pleasant on a sunny day, offered too many opportunities for distraction. We went from no frills to no courses.

Subsequently, faculty members diplomatically moved to a kind of semi-structured framework within which there were choices, limited by professional requirements and consideration for the qualities and qualifications deemed essential. A few universal requirements, such as a second language or an English or math course, remained, but they too were worn away or reduced over time. The English course often became a course with writing requirements. The math and language requirements disappeared. Ordinarily rational people argued that some people were intellectually incapable of learning a second language or of doing mathematical calculations. The argument was framed as not standing against requirements but against these specific requirements that discriminated against those not inclined to excel in these subjects. We returned to a limited menu of choices and few absolutes.

Today, we hear the beginnings of yet more change. Students seeking structure and guidance actually request requirements. They are joined by a certain section of the general public who reason that there are some things every student should know and understand. They are thinking of skills but also of themes and topics such as sustainability, globalization, the economics of work and employment, indigenous history, ethics, etc. This curriculum would require the creation of more truly interdisciplinary courses. There is also a strong demand for courses that engage students in activities off campus and broaden not only their horizons, but the way we teach and organize our curriculums. Active learning requires proactive teaching. We are moving to an exciting new brand of education.

Such proposals are invigorating and attractive to many students and faculty members but may well be greeted with antipathy by those concerned with safeguarding quality, maintaining freedom, and avoiding underlying political agendas. They can also create organizational havoc, as current faculty members may not have the qualifications or desire to teach the new topics. Universal requirements might well mean employing additional professors at a time when funding is not increasing.

We can offer some courses online, engaging experts in every field to deliver material. We can meet the demand for thematic, interdisciplinary courses and develop niches of institutional expertise. This could provide a great opportunity for those institutions willing to identify and match needs and expertise to respond positively to this swing of the pendulum. Universities will best be able to achieve this through partnerships with community agencies, businesses, and other institutions.

The day is already here when joint degrees are offered not only by two institutions but by consortia, where courses are shared and opportunities for engagement are multiplied. Our students study, volunteer, do internships and co-op programs around the world. We have already begun offering degrees with sister institutions on other continents. Transcripts will be knowledge/learning passports and students will graduate with skills, real-world experience, and a commitment to service. The curriculum will be international, interdisciplinary, and taught across institutions and beyond the borders of our campuses. The educational experience will be richer and more rewarding for all.