John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

I Am What I Studied

One of the decanal rituals of many colleges and universities is “general education reform”—“core curriculum revision”—“reinventing the core”, etc. Often these pronouncements are occasions for me for mild cynicism. I say to myself: “Yeah, sure, all they have done is to change the boxes for what students have to check off to satisfy the degree requirements.” Or, simply, this is simply a curricular affirmation of the power block at work in the Faculty Senate which has once again redivided the FTE pie.

This reflection is prompted by the fact that I visited a college recently that had just completed a massive curricular overhaul. It struck me as particularly courageous because they are a large urban community, multi-campus, college and they may be biting off more than they can chew. I admonished them with my usual mantra that it often matters more what colleges do to address HOW the curriculum is delivered than WHAT is delivered.

Yet in preparing for this campus visit, it was an occasion for me to once again reflect on the realization that I am what I studied. What students are asked to learn really does matter, that is if they can engage that curriculum using deep learning pedagogies and have it really influence their life values, insights, and choices. I urge my readers to ask themselves: are you what you studied?

To illustrate, I will share some of the ways I am what I studied:

1. I went to a small liberal arts college that was writing intensive. I had to write in every course I took. So I am a writing intensive person and citizen. For me, writing is a primary mode of thinking and communication.

2. I had to take a public speaking course in my first term of college. It was the only common required course in all majors and which no student could exempt. Much of what I do now to earn a living connects to public speaking. I can still quote explicitly the lessons I learned from that first and only required course I took in public speaking.

3. My college did NOT require me to choose a major. And so I didn’t. Instead I received an “interdisciplinary” studies “concentration” bachelors degree. And I am a much less narrow (I think) person today because of this. I am thankful to dear alma mater for never forcing me to choose a major.

4. My college did NOT make me take any mathematics. That was a big mistake. I am still math challenged, essentially, mathematically illiterate. I would be a much better thinker today had I taken math — for math is really about teaching thinking. Today, I need external assistance to explain to me various documents, reports, that come my way because I am not competent to address the mathematical and statistical presentations. That is a real weakness.

5. My college did not mandate any introductory coursework for me in the fine arts. Consequently, I developed no appreciation for the arts until mid life, in my middle forties, I met my current wife, Betsy Barefoot, who had a passion for the arts and gave that gift to me. How different my young adulthood would have been had I discovered dance, opera, classical music, live theater. But thank goodness I was opened up later rather than sooner.

6. My college courses constantly forced me to look at the big picture abstractions, derived from masses of more minute information. Now I do that all the time.

7. I am persuaded that my college education made me the big picture thinker I am today. It taught me many contextual ways to understand what I needed to understand to read the paper, listen intelligently to politicians, you name it.

8. My college gave me my first and most formative relatively risk free laboratory to put into practice applications of what I was learning in the curriculum, to what I now do for a living: facilitate organizational change. This happened by my involvement in student government, co-curricular activities where I got to practice: speaking, writing, persuading, dreaming, organizing, facilitating, leading, pursuing a vision for a better community, and a quest for social justice.

I am what I studied. How about you? If you agree that you are too, how can/should you communicate this to your students to provide a catalyst for their own thinking about how they are becoming what they study? What students are asked to study really does matter.

-John N Gardner

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