"Experiential Liberal Arts" in "Northeastern 2025"
In its draft statement, the Academic Plan working group on “The Essence of Northeastern” (James Hackney, Lori Lefkovitz, and Joanne Miller) call Northeastern “a leader in experiential liberal arts and sciences, entrepreneurship, and innovation.” The use of the term “experiential liberal arts” generated several comments on the discussion board set up to allow the Northeastern community to give feedback on the draft statement. One comment from a faculty member, from February 12, 2016, argues that the sentence needs to add “reference to technology [and] engineering” or risk “leav[ing] out a significant component of Northeastern.” That faculty member’s suggested rewrite removes the word “experiential liberal arts,” replacing it with “experiential education that integrates liberal arts across the humanities, sciences and technology to be entrepreneurial and to innovate.” Another faculty member, writing on February 14, argues that the term “experiential liberal arts” needs to be defined so that “technology and engineering” are not “excluded.” Kathleen M. Vranos, a graduate student, agrees with the questioning of the term “experiential liberal arts.” Posting on March 8, she suggests that “the college is ‘running away’ from its niche” by using the term. Observing that “[t]he literature refers to ‘liberal professional education,’” she suggests that the statement should use the term “experiential, liberal, professional education” rather than “experiential liberal arts.” “This means,” she concludes, “liberal education outcomes are integrated into professional programs and visible and measurable in an applied manner.”
This questioning and critique of the term “experiential liberal arts” is countered by the March 24 post by an NU alum, who quotes Harvard president Drew Faust to argue that “Northeastern is trying to revolutionize liberal arts into uniquely its own form and into a new form of higher education – experiential liberal arts.” The alum provides Faust’s description of liberal arts as “[t]he art of the possible” that is characterized by “improvisation,” “flexibility,” and “contingency” and draws from fields such as philosophy, history, anthropology, math, science, and literature. The alum argues that “experiential liberal arts” is important and revolutionary enough that it deserves “its own section in the academic plan.” The alum’s post is the closest anyone comes on the page to defining what the contested term “experiential liberal arts” is supposed to mean. It also displays the most enthusiastic support of the concept.
Another supporter of the concept of "experiential liberal arts" is, not suprisingy, Northeastern University president Joseph Aoun. In an essay published in 2015, Aoun argues that "the marriage of liberal arts skills with experiential learning yields advanced survival skills for the modern era: creative, critical and analytical thinking, deft communication, and the ability to deal with complexity and ambiguity, applying knowledge in unexpected situations." Aoun's examples of how this marriage might work in practice involve an English major who does a co-op with a magazine and a philosophy major doing a co-op at the UN Human Rights Council and doing a research project based on that experience.
Despite Aoun's support for the concept, the term "experiential liberal arts" does not appear in the final version of the "Essence of Northeastern" statement. It has been replaced by a characterization of Northeastern as "a world leader in experiential learning and a thought leader on the frontier of learning science." Without going into an etymological analysis of the words "art" and "science," I would point out the obvious shift in phrasing from emphasizing "liberal arts" to stressing "learning science." I am not entirely sure of the origins of the term "learning science," but a quick check on Wikipedia (I know, I know) reveals that it is a relatively new term; the replacement suggests a nervousness about using an ancient (out of date?) term like "liberal arts" (even with the more fashionable word "experiential" tacked on) and a preference for a more modern and "scientific" sounding characterization of the school's identity.
Furthermore, the only reference to the liberal arts in the final Academic Plan is found in a section entitled "Learning tailored by enhancements in technology":
Northeastern 2025 will take advantage of technology to connect more quickly with professional networks across industries in real time. This will enable the university to make education, including our liberal arts curriculum, more responsive, with classroom and experiential learning tailored to the demands of an ever-evolving world, a requisite for professional resilience.
The liberal arts curriculum is singled out as being in need of "enhancement" through technology that will make it more able to 'keep in step' with the demands of modern (post-modern? post-post-modern?) life.
Curiously (or perhaps not so curiosly), the implication that the liberal arts curriculum in particular is in need of being "tailored to the demands of an ever-evolving world" is in sharp contrast with Harvard President Faust's depiction of the liberal arts (quoted earlier) as "[t]he art of the possible." Faust seems to be arguing that the liberal arts are always already able to perpare students for "professional resilience."
So the revision of the "Essence" statement has given me new directions for inquiry, both in terms of the immediate context of Northeastern and in a more general "boundary-less" context of twenty-first century higher education. In lieu of a conclusion, I'll raise three points that might be worth considering or investigating further in the future:
- The role of the humanities at a career- or professional-oriented university. If the “liberal arts” are not part of the school’s professed identity (essence), where do they belong? (I confess that right now I’m equating the liberal arts with the humanities, which is not exactly right. But I’ll try to figure that out in a future project.) In what way are they necessary, and (going back to something I was writing before the Great Essence Deletion of 9/27/16) in what way are actual departments of English, languages, philosophy, etc., necessary as independent academic units in such a university? Perhaps one thing that we could imagine is that the school could combine them into some sort of interdisciplinary “department” or teaching and research unit. Removins such disciplinary divisions would also be in tune with the academic plan's theme of "boundaryless-ness." I have my concerns about such an idea from an institutional and political (institutional political) standpoint because I’ve had experience with working in teaching units that are underfunded and overworked and generally made second-class citizens of the institution. However, there might also be something to be said for, say, a humanities unit or a liberal arts unit that would be properly funded and respected and would not necessarily depend for its existence on educating majors or graduate students in its program. I wonder how that might work and what the practical effects of that would be. Where might we find positive and inspiring models of such programs?
- Related to this is the fact that I don’t really know what the “liberal arts curriculum” at NU is. I know there’s an NU Core (CORE?) of courses that students can choose from for what I’m guessing is basically a gen. ed. requirement. First Year Writing is one of those courses, of course (which places me in the liberal arts curriculum?). I need to find out more about what this CORE is and how it might be characterized as a liberal arts curriculum. I also could find out more about how it is taught to see if there is a reason it is singled out as being in need to the kind of attention it is given in terms of keeping up-to-date with our fast-moving global society.
- In all this, I would need to move beyond anecdotal evidence. I know from my own experience, for instance, that I haven’t had that many liberal arts majors in either my FYW courses or my AWD courses (depending on how you define “liberal arts,” of course). I also know that a colleague of mine taught the “Advanced Writing for the Humanities” course last year that is supposed to cater to the needs of majors in the humanities. If I remember correctly, not one of the students in the class was a humanities major. What that means, I don’t know—that students pick courses based on the schedule? That there aren’t that many humanities majors at NU? That humanities majors take courses other than that course for whatever reason? So anecdotes only take you so far in trying to figure out something as complex as this.
"Academic Plan: Northeastern 2025." Northeastern 2025. www.northeastern.edu/academic-plan/plan/. Accessed 28 Sept. 2016.
Aoun, Joseph E. "A Complete Education." Inside Higher Ed. 20 Apr. 2015. www.insidehighered.com/views/2015/04/20/essay-calls-ending-divide-between-liberal-arts-and-practical-education. Accessed 28 Sept. 2016.
"Essence of Northeastern." Northeastern 2025. www.northeastern.edu/academic-plan/essence-of-northeastern/. Accessed 28 Sept. 2016.
"Essence of Northeastern (Draft)." Northeastern 2025. www.northeastern.edu/academic-plan/essence/. Accessed 27 Sept. 2016 (no longer available).
Faculty Member. Comment on "Essence of Northeastern (Draft)." Northeastern 2025. 12 Feb. 2016. www.northeastern.edu/academic-plan/essence/#discussion. Accessed 27 Sept. 2016 (no longer available).
Faculty Member. Comment on "Essence of Northeastern (Draft)." Northeastern 2025. 14 Feb. 2016. www.northeastern.edu/academic-plan/essence/#discussion. Accessed 27 Sept. 2016 (no longer available).
"Learning Sciences." Wikipedia. 26 Sept. 2016. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Learning_sciences. Accessed 27 Sept. 2016.
"Liberal Arts Education." Wikipedia. 19 Sept. 2016. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liberal_arts_education. Accessed 27 Sept. 2016.
NU Alum. Comment on "Essence of Northeastern (Draft)." Northeastern 2025. 24 March 2016. www.northeastern.edu/academic-plan/essence/#discussion. Accessed 27 Sept. 2016 (no longer available).
Vranos, Kathleen M. Comment on "Essence of Northeastern (Draft)." Northeastern 2025. 8 March 2016. www.northeastern.edu/academic-plan/essence/#discussion. Accessed 27 Sept. 2016 (no longer available).