Setting an Agenda for Change: Meeting the Challenges and Exploring the Opportunities in Higher Education

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Setting an Agenda for Change: Meeting the Challenges and Exploring the Opportunities in Higher Education

During the last decade we have become experts at quantifying the linguistic and demographic shifts now making themselves felt all across our educational system. It is relatively common knowledge, for example, that in Arizona and California, the majority of students currently enrolled in the public schools are members of groups which traditionally have been considered minorities and that significantly more than half of these students are bilingual. Few professional educators are unaware of the fact that in seven states today, 25% or more of the students speak a language other than English at home, and that nationwide, the schools enroll over 3.5 million children from non-English language background. While the popular media may emphasize the approximately 73% of these children who are Hispanic, teachers are aware of well over 150 languages spoken in the public schools. Additionally, as the often alarmist "English Only" advocates are quick to point out, more than five million children of immigrants are expected to enter our public schools during the current decade, with most demographers projecting that in the first quarter of the 21st century almost half the students in our colleges and universities will be the children of parents who have not yet arrived on our shores.

I. Some Practical Responses to Current Opportunities

Given both the pace and the magnitude of these changes, it is imperative that we consider their implication for what we teach, how we teach, and what we're teaching for. Educational aims and curricular content have shifted repeatedly over the course of the nation's history, and our own may be a time when yet another refocusing is required. In that event, the many local efforts at responding to change must become part of a larger national dialogue: a dialogue that will eschew the lure of universal prescriptions, recognizing instead that curricular designs and pedagogical initiatives may properly vary from region to region; and a dialogue that will recognize these changes not only as challenges but as opportunities.

My purpose here is to offer the perspective of an academic dean and share the way we framed the opportunities within the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Arizona during the years of my administration, 1988 through 1993. Although our situation may in some ways be unique-we are a land-grant research institution located in Tucson, just 60 miles from the border with Mexico-what has worked for us may be helpful in suggesting what might work at other campuses. Even more important, this report of our small successes may prompt others to share their own strategies and achievements so that, together, we can finally move the dialogue from a regional to a national agenda.

For the past three years at the University of Arizona, 24% to 30% of the entering students have been members of previously underrepresented groups. Older students are increasingly conspicuous in every class, and the vast majority of the undergraduates work at least part-time throughout their college years. Because the 13 programs and departments that make up the Faculty of Humanities carry a major responsibility for instructing all under-graduates-through required first-year composition courses, language instruction, and interdisciplinary general education (or core) offerings-we have collectively identified literacy, language learning, and cross-cultural understanding as the critical goals for a meaningful humanities education.

Literacy is an obvious goal. In the abstract, it is universally approved and applauded in the United States. After all, basic reading and writing skills are central to the active functioning of an informed citizenry in a democracy. Even so, the great wave of immigration in the 1980s that swept even more foreign-born people to our country than the 8.8 million who came between 1901 and 1910 has posed a challenge to our previously comfortable conceptions of what literacy entails. …