Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Will Disciplinary Perspectives Impede Curricular Reform?

Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Will Disciplinary Perspectives Impede Curricular Reform?

Article excerpt

Introduction

The recent movement for curricular reform in higher education, sparked by several critical reports in the early 1 980s, calls for improvements throughout undergraduate education [8, 11, 22]. Concerned primarily with the general education curriculum, proposed changes have involved both curricular content and educational process. Debate about content has focused on whether colleges and universities should require students to study a common core of courses, and if so, which courses [8, 12]. In the call for commonality some have advocated a core focusing on the Western humanities tradition [8], while others support a curriculum designed to support diversity, economic growth, and global interdependence [1]. When discussing educational processes, most reformers have called for pedagogies that promote students' active involvement and strengthen relationships between faculty and students [22]. For both content and process, many reformers have stressed the need for greater coherence and increased efforts to help students connect what they study with their lives. Nearly all critics have decried "narrow specialization," meaning both early career preparation and professional specialization within the liberal arts and sciences [3].

The Association of American Colleges (AAC) has led discussions about coherence in both general education and advanced studies in liberal arts fields [2, 3, 4]. In the arena of curricular reform, where rhetoric is too seldom followed by useful suggestions for change, the AAC has proposed concrete, positive recommendations for strengthening undergraduate programs. The Association has engaged national task groups of faculty to participate actively in reinvigorating the curriculum, both for general education and the major [3, 4, 5]. First, an AAC task force identified nine experiences that constitute a minimum curriculum in the liberal arts. Second, a faculty group produced a report devoted to improving the eight experiences primarily seen as general education [3]. Finally, the AAC has focused on the ninth experience, "study-in-depth," widely understood to apply to disciplinary concentrations or majors, emphasizing several aspects -- the assurance of curricular coherence, the development of critical perspectives, the connection of learning to students' lives, and the reduction of barriers for underrepresented students [2].

Pursuing the emphasis on "connectedness" as important for study-in-depth as well as for general education, in 1988 the AAC National Advisory Committee challenged several arts and sciences fields to address these broad aspects of coherence for the major [4]. Task forces of scholars appointed by their respective learned societies were established, and after three years of study many of the disciplinary societies published reports of the efforts. The AAC compiled the challenge and condensed reports from the task forces in a two-volume set: volume 1, The Challenge of Connecting Learning, and volume 2, Reports from the Fields.

These reports from teaching scholars in the respective disciplines are potentially powerful influences on the future of liberal education. The AAC effort strikes faculty sensitivities "at home base" by uniquely reflecting the concerns of scholars in each field, rather than those of education generalists. Using the versions of the task force reports assembled in volume 2: Reports from the Fields,(1) we explored how ten fields presented the goal of curricular integration or "connectedness." We compared how they expressed their separate disciplinary visions of a coherent curriculum and assessed the extent to which each addressed the challenge set forth by the AAC in volume 1: Connecting Learning. We hypothesized that the differences in forms of expression about curriculum are more than semantic; rather, they reveal the disciplines as they are perceived and taught by faculty members [29]. In this article, we discuss some patterns already known to scholars that may reflect enduring epistemological differences among the disciplines but are not always remembered when curricular change is pursued. …

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