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Alive at the Core: Exemplary Approaches to General Education in the Humanities

By Michael Nelson and Associates
416 pages
ISBN: 0-7879-4760-1
$39.00 (hardcover)

Reviewed by

Richard Boyd and Elizabeth Colwill

San Diego State University


It is one of the great virtues of Alive at the Core: Exemplary Approaches to General Education in the Humanities, edited by Michael Nelson and Associates, that it makes available to faculty and administrators in the humanities something of the rich history and varied fortunes of interdisciplinary general education. Such programs are often represented as the wave of the future: progressive, innovative, and forward-looking. Indeed, many educational theorists have promoted such programs as uniquely positioned to meet the challenges of a multicultural and interconnected world in the 21st century. Yet, taken as a whole, the thirteen essays collected in Alive at the Core reveal interdisciplinary general education involving the humanities to have a long, complex history of controversies and successes stretching back more than one hundred years.

Nelson and his co-editors have chosen wisely in offering readers a detailed snapshot of the diverse educational philosophies and practices that animate many core humanities programs and have provided a most useful introduction that clearly outlines the achievements and challenges facing all such programs. While the great majority of the institutions in this volume (ten of thirteen) are either small, selective liberal arts colleges or highly selective private research universities, the stories of these programs are also of considerable interest to faculty and administrators concerned with the translation of innovative pedagogy into successful practice at large public universities. As the editors point out, despite the considerable variety in program structure and philosophy, all of the schools surveyed in Alive at the Core participate in the nationwide debate over the place of the humanities in a core curriculum and its relation to the educational mission of the contemporary university. In an era in which the meanings and purpose of education in the humanities have been debated with ever more politically contentious rhetoric, this essential curriculum seems to have suffered from a crisis of identity. While much of this debate has been conducted at the level of ideological manifesto, Rhodes College determined in 1997 to commission papers that engaged these theoretical issues through narratives that trace the concrete course histories, reading lists, and teaching practices in various core humanities programs in general education. These essays form the basis of Alive at the Core and paint a revealing picture, we believe, of the common achievements and controversies encountered by those who are attempting to reimagine the parameters of liberal education at the modern university.

The achievements of these programs are easy to identify, for they surface throughout each and every narrative in the volume. Very often we hear stories of enhanced student motivation and commitment to education, faculty renewal and enrichment, and the increased capacity of all participants to reflect upon connections among academic disciplines and to critically engage multiple ways of knowing and understanding the world. Among the more compelling testimonies offered in this collection are various interviews with alumni who recall the powerful and lasting impact of small seminars, the collaborative spirit of the learning communities, and the opportunity to embrace the rigors of intellectual life with a team of dedicated faculty. As one student at Berkeley's Experimental College Program reflects twenty years after the experience:

The impacts [of the program] were subtle. They become apparent more and more as you get older. It educated us, taught us how to read, how to learn for ourselves…. It took us from the bad habits of cramming for exams and feeding back to people what they wanted to hear, to actually see what a person has to say and deciding for yourself whether that's something useful.(164)

Equally encouraging is the enthusiasm with which a number of the volume's authors embrace the rewards of a common educational experience for their students. John Churchill best captures this spirit when he promotes the integrated program at Hendrix College as a uniquely successful way "to provide a common experience, one that gives students resources with which to reflect, not merely images to react to" (327).

Whatever their noteworthy achievements over the course of several decades, these programs have also been dogged by disputes, controversies, and even failures. While the narratives collected in Alive at the Core express the common theme of programmatic success and highlight student transformation, they also contain a persistent counternarrative of struggle and opposition. The obstacles faced by these innovative programs seem to us to fall into three primary categories: struggles for institutional support, debates over the curriculum, and faculty resistance to nontraditional models of general education.

While the number and range of interdisciplinary programs that have been established in the last hundred years is rather remarkable, few have enjoyed uninterrupted support. As a substantial majority of the narratives in Alive at the Core demonstrate, most innovative programs will experience dramatic ebb and flow in the level of administrative commitment, both of the philosophical and financial variety. Even the famous Meiklejohn experiment at the University of Wisconsin in the 1930s, often regarded as the model for learning-community-based education, lasted for only five years. Interdisciplinary programs created as "alternatives" at institutions that offer a more traditional model of discipline-based general education to the majority of its students have suffered most from institutional marginalization and the shifting winds of administrative favor. For example, while the institutional identity of St. John's College emerges directly from its "New Program" of interdisciplinary humanities seminars focused on foundational texts, Berkeley's more limited Experimental College Program of the 1960s did not survive the tensions between traditional departmental structure and pedagogical innovation. While only one of the programs discussed in this text actually failed to survive, many others have faced severe challenges. Clearly, innovative programs in general education do not sit easily within more traditional models of education, and such a disjuncture between competing models of education is rarely to the advantage of the innovative program. Only institutions such as St. Johns College, where interdisciplinary programs have received wholehearted and consistent administrative support, have been able to avoid ongoing questions concerning the place and viability of the program within the institution.

No matter how secure the place of the programs within the broader institutions, all have experienced vigorous and ongoing debates over the content of the curriculum that is offered to students. Such debates are so heated precisely because they are, at root, debates over the very meaning and purpose of higher education. The narratives in Alive at the Core are replete with examples of institutions struggling to define the relationship between their core classes and their professed institutional mission. Often this debate takes the form of sometimes painful reassessments of the value of what was traditionally labeled "the Western Tradition" in contrast to a more global, multicultural perspective. Integrated general education programs as diverse as those found at Eckerd College, a small, church-based college, and Columbia University, a cosmopolitan research institution, have been subject to this heated controversy. Such controversies raise the vexing possibility that structural innovation may not always be accompanied by progressive curricular change.

We can discern deep philosophical divisions also in the histories recounted here over the struggle to define the appropriate line between breadth and depth in core general education programs. Many of the institutional narratives in Alive at the Core describe a long history of animated conversations about the legitimacy of common curricula organized around themes rather than disciplinary subjects. An intensely interdisciplinary course like "The Search for Values in the Light of Western History and Religion" (Rhodes College) inevitably gives rise to objections that it appears to sacrifice disciplinary coverage, even as proponents extol the virtues of coherence over the illusion of comprehensiveness.

Indeed, Alive at the Core provides abundant evidence that faculty opposition and difficulties in faculty recruitment are among the most common challenges to the viability of innovative general education programs in the humanities. Theme-based courses with a high level of faculty integration in team teaching require faculty members to teach outside of their area of expertise and even their area of comfort, a situation that gives rise to significant levels of faculty discomfort and complaint. Because of the demanding nature of team-teaching in interdisciplinary courses, administrators often struggle to define equivalent workloads for faculty who teach in traditional versus those in innovative general education programs. Faculty members trained within traditional disciplines and employed within traditional departments often are reluctant to abandon their responsibilities of departmental service, graduate mentoring, and specialized research. They may even perceive the existence of non-traditional programs as a threat to their own closely held notions of disciplinary identity and pedagogical legitimacy. Perhaps the most harrowing example of this in Alive at the Core is again the situation at Berkeley's Experimental College, where the faculty members' unwillingness to absent themselves from their departments for more than a short period, and the administration's failure to hire new faculty, led to the collapse of the experimental program after just four years. Our own experience also suggests that team-teaching challenges the exclusive exercise of authority in the classroom in ways that many faculty members may experience as unsettling to their professional self-representation. In working with faculty teaching teams, we have learned that they are most successful when they are prepared to take risks and to embrace the opportunity to reflect upon and reimagine their own teaching practices.

Alive at the Core effectively chronicles the history of these kinds of controversies, yet it also suggests how to make sense of their apparent ubiquity. For this reason alone, the book will be of great interest to those involved in general education in the humanities, interdisciplinary programs, and those concerned with educational innovation. We found within these stories of debate and argument a larger, and very important, lesson: the controversies that appear to plague so many innovative general education programs are not necessarily a symptom of their failures but may in fact be a sign of their achievements. Programs that are serious about offering students a more active role in the learning process and about restructuring relationships among students, faculty, and curriculum will inevitably challenge those who are committed to a discipline-based model of general education. Indeed, to not encounter serious objections and controversy may very well suggest a program's failure to take on the very challenges that lie at the heart of a transformative educational experience. One only needs to remember the words of that former Berkeley student to recognize the potential for general education to shape profoundly a life, which is finally the very real stakes for which these struggles are waged.

Posted October 31, 2003

All material appearing in this journal is subject to applicable copyright laws.
Publication in this journal in no way indicates the endorsement of the content by the California State University, the Institute for Teaching and Learning, or the Exchanges Editorial Board. ©2003 by Richard Boyd and Elizabeth Colwill.

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