5 minutes of thoughts on integrated curricula and liberal arts
Below is the text of a short talk I gave at a conference on Liberal Arts organised by Benedictus on Friday 24 June 2016.
I’m not sure what I was thinking when I proposed to give a 5-minute talk on the topic of ‘How to create an integrated curriculum’. I now don’t think this is possible to do properly in 5 mins. So I will simply raise some thoughts but I won’t go into nuts and bolts here. These are on the website of the Arts and Sciences BASc degree at UCL and you can put together the details at your leisure.
I think it is unquestionably easier to conceive of an integrated curriculum if one has a clear overarching metaphysics, a somewhat known philosophy, under which to position that curriculum. Thus Alasdair MacIntyre can say that ‘what has gone wrong’ (for example, in the fragmentation of the disciplines and lack of a single shared enterprise at universities) ‘is due to some inability or refusal to understand human beings as directed towards God, both in their practical and in their theoretical enquiries.’ Or, to give another, more secular example, the philosopher Nicholas Maxwell writes: the modern university curriculum should be driven by the question:
‘How can our human world, and the world of sentient life more generally, imbued with…consciousness, free will, meaning and value, exist and best flourish embedded as it is in the physical universe?’
I’m genuinely sympathetic to these attempts. But even they seem somehow a little too prescriptive, a little too teleological, not to mention the fact that to have God leading the curriculum at UCL would be problematic.
We are at the beginning of a revolutionary age for learning, and with regard to our attitudes to knowledge claims in general. This revolution is driven partly by the internet and partly by our growing recognition that the most pressing questions for humankind are now of planetary scope. Further, some aspects of the postmodern attitude have turned out to be correct – not those crass approaches that dig their proponents into impossible logical holes by claiming that all truth is relative, nor those that posit science as the root of all evil – but those that state, as the internet historian David Weinberger records, that ‘there is no privileged position’ for knowledge, that ‘interpretations are social’ and any grand narrative (in Lyotard’s sense) is deeply problematic and will be contested by multiple others.
Within this context however, I think it is still possible to build a curriculum based on hope and trust: Hope that the students will find their way to something of intellectual worth, to fashion ‘their own intellectual voice’, as the neuroscientist Vin Walsh calls it; and trust, that if the structure of the curriculum is correct, if the design is universal enough, but the constraints smart enough and the intellectual guidance strong enough, such outcomes are more than possible, they are likely.
At UCL on the Arts and Science programme we ask students to make 3 broad commitments: to study something scientific; to study something humanistic or social scientific; and to study a foreign language – all throughout their time on the degree. This, if you like, is our commitment to a more interdisciplinary and a more universal education, an education in the great tradition of the Liberal Arts. However, in order to facilitate integration, we also frame the degree, in year 1, with a course explicitly about disciplinary perspectives and two big methods courses which aim to empower the student as a young researcher. Throughout the duration of the programme there are then numerous light touches on the tiller, and many gentle interventions in terms of module offerings, assessments, social and pastoral events and so on, to guide students towards their own integration and their own syntheses.
To offer just a few examples: we have courses in coding with strong practical or visual elements; courses which explicitly combine two or more disciplines such as Migration and Health or Energy Systems; and courses in new ‘inter’-disciplines, such as Cities or 3-D Printing. We do not shy, either, from the strong practical gains of interdisciplinary learning. Graduating students will work in a knowledge economy in which most jobs are essentially non-disciplinary. To ignore this fact is, I think, negligent and so we offer courses that link university learning to future work.
Within this broad context, and by working with peers and teachers, students begin to forge their own meaning in the intellectual universe. This is often manifest in their capstone dissertation. Here we ask students to demonstrate some kind of interdisciplinary synthesis and we use assessment criteria based on Boix Mansilla’s research at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. These dissertations show that a high standard of integration across disciplinary divides is perfectly possible at undergraduate level.