WCH and the Liberal Arts Core

by Lawrence Johnson, Ph.D.

 

Having served as an officer or member of the Faculty Senate for over ten years, I have come to understand that most curricular matters--the most unambiguous prerogative of faculty--coming before that body are patently sound: they are supported by the standards set by accrediting bodies or other agencies and they have the support of the faculty who are most intimately involved in the delivery of that curriculum.  It is fitting that they be expeditiously approved by the appropriate curricula committees and the Senate. 

But on occasion, there are proposals whose soundness is suspect, and it is in those cases that the faculty must exercise its core prerogative and submit those proposals to a rigorous and thorough examination to establish their soundness before approving them for introduction into the curriculum.  I believe that the proposal recently developed within the College of Liberal Arts Council of Chairs and Program Directors is just such a proposal, one that is problematic in its origins, in its justification, and in its consequences.   Realizing that faculty time is precious, I want to set out my concerns  in writing for consideration before faculty members convene to exercise their prerogatives in considering this proposal.  

1. Problem definition, consensus, and justifications: 1985 and 2004 

    By the early 1980’s, the B.A. degree had maximized “student choice.”  Beyond the required courses in Composition, History, and Political Science, students were required to complete 6 semester hours of literature and the sophomore sequence in a language. The major required only a minimum of 12 upper division hours; there was no minor. The remainder of the 123 hours were block electives: 6 in fine arts, 12 in the social sciences, 15 in the humanities and 12 in mathematics/science. Students were required to complete a minimum of 36 upper division hours (including the 12 in the major). 

In the Fall of 1980,  the then Dean of the College of Liberal Arts,  Diana Natalicio, formed a committee chaired by Thomas Price (Political Science) to analyze how the B.A. degree was currently structured, how it was executed by students, and what  was needed to strengthen the degree. 

During the Fall of 1980 and the following spring, that committee first engaged in a review of how the current structure was employed by students. To that end (in a time when student data was not yet computerized), the committee analyzed a representative sample of final degree plans (those used to certify eligibility for graduation) and then collected narrative information from departmental advisors.

This degree plan analysis revealed the following:

(1)   Students tended to maximize the number of lower-division courses in both their major and in their general education courses.

(2)   There was no discernable correlation between a student’ major and the electives they chose to complete their degree.

(3)   There was a tendency to see clusters of elective enrollments in courses recognized as low-risk/low effort by students (and their faculty advisors) regardless of their major. 

For their part, undergraduate advisors reported that

(1)    Students were generally not receptive to suggestions from advisors that particular electives were more germane to their majors, especially upper-level electives; and

(2)    Students tended largely to choose electives either for the level of risk/effort or for reasons of scheduling congruent with their other time demands. 

Based on that data, the Committee, in its initial recommendations to the Dean and the College in the Spring of 1982, proposed to restructure the block electives into focused blocks of electives limited to specific courses and organized by “domains” (e.g., Judgment and Interpretation, Value Dimensions, Cultural Diversity). Philip Himmelstein, then Chair of Psychology, perhaps best summarized the prevalent response to that proposal: “I view,” he wrote, “the current degree proposal as a nightmare for the departmental advisor and student.” 

Under the leadership of Dean Natalicio, the Committee and the chairs, working together over the next 24 months, developed what turned out to be a much more radical revision to the B.A that, through the processes created by the Dean, achieved remarkable consensus within the Committee, the chairs, and the faculty at large.  

 A minor (including 12 upper division hours ) was created; the minimum number of  upper-division courses in the major was increased to 18.  Each degree candidate was required to take at least one mathematics or statistics course from a shortened list; the science requirement was limited to laboratory science courses, and a speech communication course was made mandatory.  The two-semester sophomore literature requirement was transformed into a one-semester upper division literature requirement, and an upper-division philosophy requirement was created. General Education requirements in Social Sciences and Art were limited to upper level courses but reduced in number. 

Finally, the College committed itself to the development of a totally new 6 credit hour, three semester Western Cultural Heritage sequence (three lecture hours/week; 2 credits/semester) as a common requirement for all candidates for the B.A. As stated in the documents presented to the Faculty Senate as part of the approval process for the modifications to the B.A. degree, the purpose of this requirement was “to promote the sort of awareness that will situate the student in his or her cultural environment. An articulate understanding of western cultural heritage requires examination of the character and interrelations of the fine arts, history, literature, philosophy, politics, religion, and science. The sequence is designed to foster such an understanding by focusing, in a carefully coordinated three-semester continuum, upon selected epochs characterized by peculiarly intense activity in the various aspects of culture. … [This sequence] seeks to insure that all Liberal Arts students receive a systematic, broad (but also intense) exposure to the thinking, ideas, texts, and art works that have been produced by western civilization. Its fundamental emphasis is on ways of thinking about such basic human questions as the nature of the state; the rights and responsibilities of citizens and members of the community; concepts of human nature; the human species as victim, antagonist, or part of nature; the supernatural; esthetics; technology; and epistemology.” 

Funded first by an NEH planning grant in 1985-6 and then by a three year NEH implementation grant in the amount of $216,233.00 (the largest NEH grant ever received by UT El Paso),  the WCH sequence was phased into operation over the next three years, while all other changes were implemented for the 1985-6 academic year. 

The current recommendations now under consideration in 2004, however, are mimssing what should be key elements in any curricular change:  no problem statement was ever defined as a prologue to the consideration of possible revisions to the 1985 General Education requirements, no data was collected (even though we have far more capability for such collection and analysis today than we had in 1985), and no rationale provided beyond a claim that such changes would benefit  students by providing more freedom to exercise choice. 

In 2004, the claimed consensus supporting this proposal is founded upon signed statements from 14 of 19 Chairs and Directors, a claim that glosses over the fact that in that group only 11 members represent Departments and thus faculty, while the remaining 8 are program directors whose teaching staff are members of departments.  Further, while it is argued that 52% of the popular vote constitutes a mandate in political circles, the dissenting views of the Departments of English, Languages and Linguistics, Theatre and Film, and Philosophy represent a degree of disagreement existing within  the college that exceeds, by orders of magnitude, any opposition to the 1985 changes. 

The processes by which department sentiments were assessed are far less sound than those employed in 1985.  In the English Department, for example, the Dean’s Office presented to the assembled faculty a choice between two plans, providing arguments for each, but made no equally objective argument for the retention of the present set of requirements.  At the same time, those speaking made no statements defining the problems with the existing requirements.  Reports from concerned faculty in other departments, moreover, report that their departmental discussions, if held, were primarily shaped by the potential benefits accruing to that department from the redistribution of student enrollments. 

Having served as a department chair in the College of Liberal Arts for nine years, I have come to appreciate a clear and unequivocal difference between the concerns shaping the decisions made by a chair and those that should shape faculty decisions about the curricula.  A chair's central concern is the acquisition and management of resources for maximizing the effectiveness of the department's curricula; it is the faculty who, while concerned about such resources, should be, first and foremost, concerned with the appropriateness and value of each curricular component, making their decisions on such grounds. 

I thus see the support for this proposal from such administrators arising from their concerns as administrators rather than as faculty. From the perspective of administrators, this proposal has clear economic benefits for the College:

(1)  it will eliminate the faculty costs and administrative overhead currently committed to support the Western Cultural heritage core, freeing up resources for redistribution within the College;  the students will easily be absorbed into other existing classes without requiring any additional staffing or funding; and,

(2)  that, in turn, holds a promise, albeit a questionable one, that departments will reap the benefits of increased credit hour production, assuming, as most chairs do, that increased credit hour production produces commensurately increased dollars.  

Those promises of future benefit, however, discount the significant investment made by the University, its faculty, and outside agencies in the development and evolution of the Western Cultural Heritage program and entail an abandonment of those investments for such future economic benefits to individual departments.  More importantly, these benefits are economic and do not necessarily entail an added benefit to the education of students. 

2.  The problems beneath the promise of “freedom to choose.” 

“Freedom of choice” is an appealing cliché, but within the context of curriculum development, it easily reduces to an absurdity: taken to its ultimate end, this would be an argument for the abolition of curricula committees and curricula themselves.  That is not the principle upon which we construct curricula: in their development, faculty establish boundaries and objectives, and then create paths—of variable width—to those objectives.   

The 1985 General Education requirements were shaped by an analysis that demonstrated the problems arising from such untrammeled freedom.  Such an analysis can be replicated today and, if that analysis were to show that student behaviors have substantively changed since 1985, then changes in the curriculum proportional to those behavioral changes would be justifiable.  But such an analysis remains to be done. 

At present, moreover, students pursuing a B.A. degree currently enjoy much more freedom of choice than students following any other curriculum within the University: with the exception of the legislatively mandated courses in Political Science, History and the current WCH requirement, such students have a range of choices in each block of the core curriculum, in their major, and in their minor.   

Untrammeled freedom of choice does not promise to enhance the quality of our students’ education; it only threatens the substantiveness of that education as students could well seek the path of least resistance in their pursuit of a diploma as they were shown to do in the 1980’s. 

This is not merely a local issue or a local phenomenon, as evidenced by a recent
article entitled “Common Knowledge: the Purpose of General Education” in the October 8th edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education, by Barry Latzer, a professor of government at John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York and a senior consultant to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni and his respondents in the November 12th issue. 

3.  Other concerns not openly discussed in the formal proposal 

While the issue of enhancing completion rates is not raised by the College’s proposal, it has surfaced repeatedly in discussions about the proposal. Assuming that this is a good (and the Legislature says that it is), it is addressed by this proposal ONLY if the existing requirements cannot be fulfilled because of a lack of seats in WCH, English, and Philosophy courses.  Such is not the case:  WCH courses are regularly offered at a variety of hours, including evening sections. More importantly, our large sections are artificially capped at below their actual capacity, and NO STUDENT has ever been denied a seat in those sections (offered both during the day and at night.)   Thus they do not, in their accessibility, impede students’ progress towards graduation. 

There may, however, be a more pernicious argument unvoiced but operative in this claim: that the material and/or the grading standards in these required courses may be impeding students’ progress towards their degrees.  While this is not supported by any data, it would in any case seem to be an argument that must be rejected by faculty unless they too would open their own courses to challenge because they set a certain standard for student performance. 

Thus there is no valid reason to argue that eliminating this requirement would enhance graduation rates: if that “benefit” were in fact to be achieved, it is arguable that it would be caused by the students’ enhanced ability to select those courses that represented a path of least resistance, a phenomenon that could only be seen as a lowering of the academic standards represented by the B.A. 

There may be the perception that the present General Education requirements were created in response to a “passing fad” emerging at the time of their creation in the ‘80’s, and, now that it has passed, it is time to realign our curriculum accordingly.  That perception is doubly specious:  the requirements were created for a specific purpose after long and intense deliberation and the arguments for their creation have not lost their power over time (even though they may be unknown to those who now advocate their elimination); and such requirements, across the nation, continue to show incremental growth at the center of Liberal Arts degree programs.  In fact, it may be argued that we would be moving counter to such nationwide trends were we to eliminate these requirements. 

Is it possible that the quality of the WCH courses is such that they should be eliminated as a requirement?  No such argument has been made publicly; there is no data to support such a claim and much to argue against it, including the fact that this program, unlike any other in the College, was developed by a group of faculty which included five members who were recognized by the award of the University’s Distinguished Achievement Award for Teaching. The institutional and extramural support garnered by these courses is another index of their persistent value as recognized by others outside the College. 

The last argument for change disturbs me the most, for it is indicative of an utter lack of awareness of what actually is attempted in the WCH program:  this is the claim that these courses “privilege” certain ideas, specifically the ideas of “dead white males” and are thus disrespectful of our students’ diverse cultural heritage.  To the best of my knowledge, no one who has actively participated in the development of this proposed change has examined in any depth what these courses actually do and how they do it even though their content is easily accessible on the Web and even though those who teach these courses have been willing to discuss their teaching and open it to outside auditors. Nonetheless, this erroneous perception shapes the thinking of some who have given their support to this proposal. 

This argument disturbs me because I was a member of the committee whose two years of work led to the creation of the current requirements and the WCH program; I then was a member of the team developing the initial course design and finally, I have taught (often as an overload) at least two of these courses each semester, constantly engaged in improving both the content and the methods of delivery (including a significant technology component) since their inception.   Thus I can speak authoritatively in their defense against such charges. 

On this campus and in this curriculum, the WCH courses were created to afford students a common experience that would be brought to and illuminate their individual pursuits of specific majors and minors.  These junior-level courses would be writing intensive; they would stress the critical understanding of   the diverse and conflicting ideas permeating our  contemporary culture by examining the roots of that complex heritage; and, most importantly, they would examine both the “power” those ideas had which enabled their persistence until today AND their inherent weaknesses which limit their  validity in contemporary discourse.  In these courses, it is safe to say, no idea is “privileged” but rather each is subject to an intense critical scrutiny that reveals how such ideas could be--and are--abused, then and now.   We thus attempt  to engender an understanding of the internal coherence of diverse idea-sets, represented by the texts we include in our syllabi,  as they arose in a specific time and place (something we expect educated adults to do in their respectful discourse with others) and then to highlight the inherent weaknesses or limitations of each such idea-set; finally, we look for manifestations of those  idea-sets (still with their strengths and weaknesses) in contemporary culture as political, social, and personal “arguments”  which we still use (and which are still used on us).    These courses are intended to promote NOT the ideas, but a thoughtful, analytical, and critical response to them so that the same kind of response can be deployed by our students when they are threatened by modern abuses of those ideas.   I offer those critics  of  the WCH courses the same opportunity I offer several hundred students each semester: I invite them to request, concerning any idea represented  in any text or lecture discussion,  that I provide them with a contemporary instance of that idea at work in our contemporary society.  I have never failed to meet that challenge, providing them with not only instances of an idea-set’s credible use but an equally cogent example of a patent abuse of that idea-set.   I know, from over thirty five years’ engagement with political discourse outside the University by virtue of my Army service, that such abuse is rampant, and I am committed, through these courses, to the empowerment of students through their enhanced abilities to respect the power of such ideas but at the same time to challenge those who would abuse that power through the student’s critical awareness of the dynamics of such ideas. 

4.  The impact on students in the workplace and beyond. 

At a recent symposium on accountability in higher education, Chancellor Mark Yusof noted that accountability must go beyond current measures to address the concerns of employers (Austin Statesman, October 29, 2004).  For the last thirty years, I have been one of those employers: fully 75% of the entry level professional positions (Army officers and GS9+) in the Army Reserve are open to liberal arts majors regardless of discipline, and I’ve been hiring, training, evaluating, promoting and terminating them throughout the preceding decades. I thus am confident I have a sound idea about what is essential to the success of those I hire. 

Entry-level engineers and accountants demand little investment from my organization, bringing to it sets of skills defined by their professions and measured by the standards of those professions and their accrediting agencies as they achieved their degrees.  The qualified Liberal Arts graduate, on the other hand, will require a much lengthier learning period before benefiting the organization. That benefit can be realized, however, only if the individual is eager to learn what must be learned. In my organization, they will not be successful if they do not learn, and I do not have the resources to invest in coercing their engagement in such learning; it is challenging enough to give them the opportunities and support for that learning.  

Such employees must be capable of comparative analysis from which they are expected to draw valid conclusions that will then shape subsequent actions within my organization. Senior sergeants can be dogmatic because of their years of experience, but those young professionals who are convinced that all that they needed to know was learned in kindergarten are worse than useless: when I need their powers of analysis to chart a new path through conflicting courses of action (e.g., those offered by the dogmatic sergeants and those emerging from new circumstances or new guidance) for the good of the organization and am offered instead a facile answer pulled out of their hip pocket, their services are without value and potentially damaging to my organization. 

To do that analysis, they must be sensitive to cultural differences WITHIN our culture, differences which manifest themselves as competing or conflicting value statements but each of which is derived from and informed by the equally heterogeneous value sets to be found in the totality of our “civic culture.”  They must be sensitive to those differences that arise within my organization and to those that arise between the larger society and my organization (which is intended to serve that society—effectively). Any failure to do so increases fruitless conflict and reduces cooperation achieved through the promotion of mutual understanding. 

It is essential that they have some sophistication in dealing with ideas put into complex prose,  that they are able to read objectively and then identify, with some precision, the points of conflict between one set of statements (e.g., regulations) and another (a commander’s request for support that superficially may appear to be in conflict with those regulations).  If they cannot, their decision-making will be dangerously skewed, with real impacts on real people. 

They must be competent writers, presenting themselves in such a way that it does not detract from the cogency of the message they are communicating on behalf of the organization, upward, downward or laterally.  Competence is the standard, but that competence is not innate and achieved only through experience.  Again, my organization’s resources are finite, and I expect my employees to have that competence when they come to my organization.  If they have evaded gaining that experience while in college, I am not equipped—or inclined—to provide it to them in the workplace.  

None of these skills are innate; all are acquired through focused, disciplined, and intense effort.  If the effort is not exerted during the course of their formal education,  there is much less likelihood that it will be voluntarily exerted in the workplace as the employee tries to compete with better prepared peers while required to compensate, largely on his or her own, for the relative deficit in these skill sets. 

I have employed and supervised such employees in San Antonio, Wichita, and Seattle, and thus have a solid sense of what such entry level employees bring—or do not bring—to my workplace.  Having seen a large segment of the candidates for the B.A. at this institution, I am not confident that they are as competitive as their peers elsewhere, even though they are not lacking in the capacity to be competitive.  And I am far from persuaded that “freedom of choice” will do any good and fear that it will lessen, not enhance, their competitiveness in such positions. 

And what about our schools?  Will these changes enhance the effectiveness of our secondary school teachers?   The proponents of these changes assume that they will—on faith, rather than evidence—but Liberal Arts faculty deeply engaged in the development of students intending to teach are  skeptical about such assumptions. 

Narrative evidence—over fifteen years--- provided by graduates suggests the perceived centrality of the current General Education requirements, especially WCH, in the preparation of our graduates for the study of law; repeatedly, their respect for the benefits of the core have been framed by the confession that they did not willingly enroll in the course but are deeply grateful that they were required to do so.   

Objective confirmation or repudiation of these concerns is ascertainable. We know where they are and can ask them some very simple questions about their perceived level of success after graduation and the impact—positive or negative—on their success that they attribute to completion of the existing General Education requirements.   That, however, has not yet been attempted.  I, personally, would be happy with whatever results such a study would produce, for it would either affirm the validity of what I have been trying to do for the last fifteen years, or it would encourage me to return to the much less demanding and more traditional teaching assignments to be found in my primary department. 

5.  The potential for embarrassment 

This is not a local issue, as evidenced by Latzer’s contextualizing article.  Unless there is justification for the beneficial outcomes of the proposed changes, we as an institution may receive the same criticisms enunciated in his article and in the American Council of Trustees and Alumni report entitled “The Hollow Core.” 

But it has local implications: as an institution, we are committed to improving both our status among the nation’s university and our service to the local community, its institutions and its businesses. If it is not shown that these changes improve the caliber of education and produce better prepared graduates for our community, our credibility will not be enhanced. 

Finally, we made a long-term commitment to the establishment and maintenance of the WCH program when we accepted funding from the NEH.  It does not set a good precedent in the eyes of other granting agencies when that commitment is broken without good reason.