Nothing in Common

Colleges and universities across the country are facing a serious problem. Higher education has placed so much emphasis on specialization and niche interests that the modern university has lost its “core”: the strong foundation of knowledge that all undergraduates once studied in common, regardless of major. Shared knowledge is vital to campus life and student development.

The reason we gather on a physical campus is to enjoy the stimulation and support of learning cooperatively with our peers–to join a community united by its shared pursuit of “what every educated person should know.” But excessive emphasis on specialization has combined with other cultural and technological changes to disintegrate any consensus about the ideas that should be central to all learning.

Most undergraduate curricula now lack the thoughtfully chosen content that once imparted a distinctive character to an institution and its graduates. As a result, students no longer experience the greatest benefits of joining a university. Some even believe they can stay home, study online, and lose nothing in the process.

The worst consequence is a sharp decline in students’ motivation to learn. Some universities have responded by emphasizing “undergraduate research,” in which students work closely with professors on specialized projects. Such mentoring does enhance learning and engagement in a specific field, but it also reinforces the specialist impulse, further disintegrating the cohesive intellectual community that is the heart of any robust liberal arts experience.

Another response is to offer “interdisciplinary” courses and programs. Here, too, there is much to be gained, including better awareness that the tunnel-vision of each discipline leaves “gaps” in our knowledge that niche specialists routinely overlook. But by concentrating on specific interdisciplinary topics, rather than infusing the entire curriculum with strong connective tissue, these efforts tend to produce still more niche experts.

However useful, these efforts do little to disclose the greater human value of knowledge: its power to facilitate self-discovery, to foster deeper connections with others, to solve problems creatively and compassionately, to sustain noble principles, to articulate a positive vision for a diverse society… these, and many other intangible-but-precious benefits that set the liberal arts above mere technical training. Narrow specialization may suit a career in academia or highly technical fields, but it effaces the highest aims of the liberal arts. Nor is it apt to produce the next generation of great leaders: those able to think “outside of the box,” synthesizing insights from many different fields to make powerfully creative contributions to our world.

The greatest losses have occurred in the humanities. At their best, the humanities aspire not only to transmit knowledge, skills, and aesthetic delight, but to cultivate a truly imaginative brilliance: the kind of flexible and free thinking that cannot be taught by methods and formulas, but must be nurtured through diligent application of one’s mind to literature, philosophy, theology, history, music, and the visual arts. To reap the extraordinary benefits of these fields, one must be pulled deeply into them–integrating the insights they offer, then applying them to guide and inquire meaningfully into one’s experiences.

That’s no easy task in a culture prone to dismiss these fields as “impractical,” or in an academic climate enamored of the fallacy that everything of educational importance can be reduced to concretely-measurable “learning outcomes.” But it has been made exponentially harder by the loss of education’s most powerful motivating element: the intellectual currency of ideas. By “intellectual currency,” I mean the value that any piece of knowledge acquires when it circulates frequently in a community. When a text or idea resurfaces often in discussions with our peers, it awakens a compelling desire to learn that knowledge for ourselves. It imbues that knowledge with obvious and attractive value as a means to participate more fully in the conversation.

In today’s fragmented curriculum, almost nothing recirculates beyond the compartmentalized classroom. With no foundation of shared knowledge to facilitate serious engagement, students are left to conclude that the content of their studies counts for scarcely more than quiz points. Passionate appeals to the “importance” of knowledge seem belied by the fact that few others—even on one’s own campus—know or value the same ideas and texts.

In such a climate, the pursuit of knowledge becomes a high-investment, low-return proposition: a way to dig further into a lonely niche, not to engage more fully with one’s world. Students may still see value in the field-specific skills required to “get by” in their majors, but they neglect serious learning by clinging to the debilitating myth that knowledge is merely “information” they can “look up” later.

How do we solve these problems effectively? By recognizing that the university’s greatest responsibility is to establish and sustain the intellectual currency of the ideas it professes–a feat that requires a strong foundation of shared knowledge to unite students as an intellectual community.

To achieve that goal, KNIT establishes a shared focus in GRU‘s core curriculum and encourages professors to make stronger, more frequent connections to the great human ideas and questions that link the disciplines together. By renewing a spirit of cooperative inquiry, KNIT fosters keener awareness of the personal benefits of learning and the role each discipline plays in the quest for knowledge. It creates more authentic opportunities to engage and professionalize. And it encourages students to make fuller use their education to become more than just “college graduates” or “highly skilled professionals”–to become what we might call “formidably educated.”

What exactly does it mean to be formidably educated? Great question. Join us in KNIT and we’ll seek an answer together.

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