By DONNA URSCHEL
Curriculum reform is necessary in higher education because America's colleges and universities are failing to live up to their promise of creating an educated and cultured citizenry who can participate in and lead our democracy, according to distinguished educator Vartan Gregorian, who spoke at the Library in September.
President of the Carnegie Corporation and former president of Brown University, Gregorian said the higher education curriculum has become a collection of courses fragmented into specialties, sub-specialties and sub-sub specialties. The world, however, is looking to higher education for help in integrating and synthesizing the massive load of information in today's world.
"Reforming higher education for success in a democracy is a Herculean task, but one that is long overdue," Gregorian said in his lecture titled "Higher Education in an Age of Specialized Knowledge."
The lecture, sponsored by the John W. Kluge Center at the Library, is part of a year-long series of events in honor of the eminent career and 80th birthday of Jaroslav Pelikan, a leading authority on the evolution of Christianity. Pelikan is the Sterling Professor Emeritus of History at Yale, where he served on the faculty from 1962 to 1996. He was the first holder of a Kluge Chair at the Kluge Center at the Library.
Both Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, in his introductory remarks, and Gregorian, at the top of his lecture, paid tribute to Pelikan's long and illustrious career. Pelikan attended the event, sitting in the front row with his wife, Sylvia. Said Gregorian: "Jari is a great scholar and a great teacher, living proof that good scholarship and great teaching are not mutually exclusive; indeed, they're compatible."
Gregorian launched into his lecture with a testament to the excellence of American colleges and universities, admitting and educating unprecedented numbers of men and women of every race and social class. Today there are almost 4,200 colleges and universities, including 1,700 public and private two-year institutions in the country.
"For more than two centuries, American colleges and universities have been the mainstay of our nation's progress: economic, cultural, scientific, technical and political," Gregorian said.
He traced the landmark events in the history of higher education, including the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862 and the many GI Bills starting in 1944, to show how higher education in the United States flowered into the most diverse, democratic and creative system in the world.
A problem exists, however, in the rapid expansion of higher education, according to Gregorian. "It has come to serve as a job readiness program, and sometimes not a very effective or efficient one at that, as drop-out rates and studies suggest," he said, explaining that 60 percent of students in two-year colleges and 40 percent in four-year institutions leave school without completing degrees.
Gregorian said this emphasis on vocational, technical and pre-professional studies is no way to nurture or guide young people as they struggle with the meaning of life and ponder their role in society. The current higher education structure of knowledge, which has hardened into an academic bureaucracy, poorly equips students with the ability to integrate information in an interdisciplinary way.
"Personally, I am concerned that mass higher education is headed towards some kind of Home Depot approach to education, where there is no differentiation between consumption and digestion, between information and learning. I do not believe the nation can afford to let higher education become an academic super store, a vast collection of courses, stacked up like sinks and lumber for a do-it-yourself effort to assemble it into a meaningful whole," Gregorian said.
He called for higher education reforms to reconstruct the unity of knowledge as much as possible. "The complexity of the world requires us to have a better understanding of the relationships and connections between economy and sociology, law and psychology, business and history, physics and medicine, anthropology and political science."
Gregorian referred to a statement by T.S. Eliot in the introduction to a translation of Dante's Inferno: "Hell is a place where nothing connects with nothing."
The skill of synthesis and systemic thinking is invaluable in modern society. Complex problems are systemic inquiries, engaging many disciplines. Each problem is related to every other problem, and each apparent solution may aggravate or interfere with others. For example, a technical problem such as building a freeway becomes an issue of land use, economics, environment, sociology and politics, Gregorian said.
Gregorian said higher education reform must focus on the revitalization of the liberal arts, which enhance the powers of rational analysis, intellectual precision, independent judgment and the ability to integrate knowledge. Also, higher education must help students "learn to learn" and foster the capacity for lifelong learning. In this age of information overload, with so much to learn, the ability to update and continually integrate knowledge is a necessary skill.
Campuses must create an intellectual climate that encourages the bridging of boundaries between academic disciplines and specialties. Faculty and students must be encouraged to make connections among seemingly disparate disciplines, discoveries, events and trends, Gregorian said.
While it is easy to call for educational reform, executing it is much harder. Gregorian cited Woodrow Wilson, who served as president of his alma mater, Princeton, and who once said, "It is easier to transfer an entire cemetery than to make curricular reform."
In his closing remarks, Gregorian referred to the dangers of a society that abdicates thinking: "All kinds of esoteric sects fill the vacuum." He encouraged the educators in the audience to return to their institutions and place a stronger emphasis on thinking and learning.
During the question-and-answer period, Prosser Gifford, head of Scholarly Programs at the Library, pointed out that much of the synthesis of information is not occurring in the specialization of graduate schools, but at the Library and other institutions and forums.
An audience member asked Gregorian about his opinion of think tanks. Gregorian said, "Think tanks try to get people who think alike." Although they serve an important role, that role is specialized.
Donna Urschel is a freelance writer in the Washington area.