This blog was started as my reflections on the 2011 Change MOOC. It is now an on going journal of my thoughts on Higher Education, specifically teaching Biology.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

More Cognitive Dissonance

I am starting to realize how valuable it is for me to get ideas out of my head and out into world.  Not as some grand thesis of life, but for the feedback received.  I've realized that even a small statement can chance my perspective, especially when confused over a concept.  So, here I am again posting about some of the thoughts running through my mind.  Some of my current thoughts are informed by the happenings in the Change 2011 MOOC, and others from the recent Biology Leadership Conference.  Add to that reading more about the Bologna accords, and the Lumina Foundations DQP process. 

The first dissonance deals with a Liberal Arts Education.  Just sit with the phrase for a moment.  What thoughts does it bring up in you?  What image does your mind create?

I asked friends on Facebook what they thought of General Education and Liberal Arts.  The responses they gave me were not unexpected, but shows a disconnect between what I see as General Education/Liberal Arts and what non-academics see.  This is especially true when you look at people still in school.  This is a question I'm going to ask my Freshmen class today, just to see what their feeling is on a Liberal Arts Education.  So, what were the comments?
  • "The idea is to give freedom. But I've seen few liberal arts majors that don't regret their decision and end up in grad school hoping that gets them their degree. My girlfriend wishes she had gotten something that translates better to a job than her Political Science degree."
  • "Because we assume people need to be more well rounded to be successful. This is why we are failing, every team has its players, playing the game makes you well rounded. We need more experts in my opinion."
  • "Because 'everyone needs to go to college' but not everyone really needs to go to college and not everyone can really hack it at college. ( I say this from the position of having more then 4 years of college and no degree) So we create a ' diverse spectrum of programs suited for all types of students' Oh and because more students = more money for schools and student loan companies. "
  • "I think that a lot people don't "figure out what they want to be when they grow up" until after traditional college age. Yet, most jobs require a college education." 
I feel like an odd ball, because  when I was an undergraduate, I took classes outside of my major because I thought that they were interesting.

The comments above reflect a common thread I've heard about liberal arts education.  People want a degree with meaning, and they want to get through the degree.  Many see classes outside of your major as being unnecessary or even wasteful.  It is strange that for academics, we are seeing breakdown in the traditional (and abstract) concepts of disciplines, observing instead a strong increase in multidisciplinary or cross-disciplinary studies.  

The problem is we as academics have not articulated our expectation of what it means to have a liberal arts education in a why that is meaningful to the non-academic.   Most people see Liberal Arts as being history, political science, philosophy, or art.  They don't see it as something more holistic; that liberal arts means those in the humanities have to learn science and math, as well as scientists having to experience the humanities.  

Why do we have liberal arts education?  Perspective.
The goal is to give students a diverse perspective of the world.  It can also be described as having different models to use.  A good example of this concept can be found in "Sparks of Genius" by Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein.  They show how art helped informed the discoveries of great scientists.  Warren Buffet has also spoken of how diverse models, even non-financial, can inform his financial adventures.  

The goal is not just to fill your head with information, but to provide different perspectives.  So, how do we articulate this as a valuable goal to students?


  1. I teach Student Success as well as studio art & art history, one of the questions students ask me all the time is why they have to take an art class (its a requirement for all undergrads in my system - it should be everywhere). Art is useless they tell me. I get them to write something on the board. I talk to them about the relationship between pictures (and how abstract making a picture is) pictograms and early language. I believe art (making meaning, and symbolic depictions) is at the heart of being human, may be what makes us human. I talk about math and tally sticks, symbolic marks informed by art making that allow us to count things. I talk about the act of observation that allows us to draw from life and the complex thought that goes into compressing a 3D world into a 2D image. How observation and science are linked. I talk about how their lives are enriched by images, by the icons that simply international language (like the ones for their phone apps).
    Some of them get it then, why understanding a discipline outside of your own helps you to access the greater depths of what it means to be human. But many of them don't. Most of them come to college for advanced job training - they want to get in and get out. They would like not to think too much if possible. To them education doesn't make them a well rounded person, or a better citizen more capable of understanding and evaluating the complexities of life in a democracy. No it will just give them more money. Education is a commodity they but for its exchange value - a paycheck.
    Like you I loved being out of my discipline, learning how other academic areas see/think things. It makes me sad to see the students who will miss out on the best part of their education - exactly that broadened perspective, because it holds no value for them.

  2. Thanks Deb. I agree that it is sad when I see students wasting the opportunity they have as undergraduates to really get an interesting perspective on the world. I've been working with my microbiology students with an assignment to transform their digital micrographs of bacteria in lab into something creative. Most groan, but a few do amazing jobs. Student creativity always floors me when it is expressed.

  3. I was someone who "didn't get it" at school or university. With a passion for science, engineering and maths, I couldn't wait to drop everything else. Now, for example, I regret missing out on an interesting but non-examinable course at university on the 'History of Science' because I thought I couldn't afford the time or risk degrading my performance on the 'important' subjects. I don't think any amount of direct advice would have changed my mind at the time but a less rigidly compartmentalised approach by the university might have helped to broaden horizons. No matter how relevant and mixed up X, Y and Z are in real life, given a University Department of X, it's not so easy to come up with good programmes of study that incorporate relevant material from Departments Y and Z without alienating Dept X students who can't help absorbing the attitudes and prejudices of their own Departmental group - eg Y is a 'soft' subject, Z is for math cop-outs etc. etc. It also doesn't help when Department Y's education of students other than 'their own' is regarded as a chore best left to their less experienced or enthusiastic staff. The answer must be somehow to exploit whatever academic passions students already have so that Dept X's student comes to perceive Y and Z as a proper and relevant part of X. Easier said than done but maybe technology can play its part in slanting courseware in the different directions that this would entail.
    Gordon Lockhart

  4. As much as we'd like to think that a grounding in liberal arts should be the ultimate goal of all education, I think we're assuming too much. When I started college the transition was fairly easy. The difference between my lived outlook and my schooled outlook was minimal. That said, my goal was to build houses and become a master carpenter so I did the required seat time until an opportunity to drop out came along and then was out of there to become a liberal arts tradesman.

    In the trades I worked with all sorts of people. Some would have made exemplary Greek citizens while others fell on the Barbarian side of the divide--rough but not dangerous. Every one of us could have benefited from a full lib arts degree. All of us could as well have benefited from a period of self-reflection and a bit more polish but...

    Oddly, people with degrees never seemed concerned with the time they presumably "wasted" in school when they could have been advancing in the trades. Instead, the biggest mystery was how the abstractness of their studies seemed to melt right into the concreteness of their current jobs.

    There may be many faults in education but I think it's fair to turn on those who feel cheated or rant on about how "irrelevant" liberal arts are and ask what exactly it is they want. If it's direct access to high paying jobs, what makes them think that this is an automatic process? What are the other characteristics of a sought after employee besides an attitude of entitlement? Look at the people around you who can think their way through a work related problem and ask where that soft skill is taught.

    Where I work there's a trade taught the does guarantee instant hiring. Because the instructors go out into the community where this specific skill is in short supply, sign practicum agreement, with the employer and then enroll only as many students as they have practicums for, to pass the course is to be hired. And yet, because the world has decided that to do the job you must have a certificate, the teaching falls mostly to passing the certification exam. And since the students want the work quickly there is limited time for reviewing the wholeness of the trade. So in spite of the perfect "relevance" to the actual job, the students and the employer now complain the program short-changes them.

    One last thing and I'll shut up. If you had 2 to 4 years to train someone but had no idea what exactly to train them for wouldn't it be best to for a generalist approach? We used this idea for years in an economy where the same jobs lasted a lifetime. Now that whole industries come and go in under a decade and we need generalists we are asked to prepare specialists.

  5. Scott J: Thanks for your comments. Your comment about the trade certification that has instant hiring opportunities, and how people feel short-changed when they go full tilt toward a given objective, is very powerful. It shows the disconnect I'm seeing. I'll get to my impression of trade schools and our cultural devaluation of trades education in a later post, but it is interesting that even there people feel short-changed.

    Your final thought on the focus of specialists is also critical. Teaching pre-med students, it is rare to see one who wants to go into general practice. We are loosing a great deal to this drive for specialization, and the overall affect is weakening us. Now, to find evidence for this.

  6. @gbl55: We had a discussion on our campus about having coordinated classes that would appear linked in the semester course listing. The idea would be to have various content connected between the courses. So for instance, when biology discussed DNA or Biotechnology, a history or sociology course would discuss the impact of biotechnology on human culture or history. This would be done just a few times every semester, but the idea was to help students gain different perspectives on a few content specific issues.