Learning to deal with ambiguity, new situations

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From the beginning of his tenure as president of Wesleyan University, Douglas Bennet felt it was vital to ensure that the curriculum was keeping pace with a society moving toward "Internet time," globalization, and values measured in shades of gray. That meant strengthening, not diluting, the liberal arts at the Middletown, Conn., school.

"When you think of the 21st-century ambiguities students will face - the lack of institutional structure, churches, families - the objectives of a liberal-arts education become more, not less valid," Dr. Bennet says.

Though the school was thriving, he and the faculty began a full-scale review and overhaul of the its liberal-arts curriculum after he came on board five years ago.

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To fortify the liberal arts for the future, many institutions are harking to the past and requiring a "core curriculum" that focuses anew on the liberal arts: English, foreign languages, philosophy, religion, math, social sciences, and history. Late last year, for instance, 11 colleges announced a revival of "great books" programs featuring authors from Aeschylus to Yeats.

Yet Wesleyan, like some others, has decided to march in a different direction to strengthen the liberal arts for a new century. Bennet and faculty identified eight "essential capabilities" that must be gained from a liberal-arts education: critical thinking; creative thinking; moral sensibility; communication; ability to engage technology; capacity for effective citizenship; and intercultural competence.

In the future, Bennet says, all courses at Wesleyan must justify their existence by showing how they enhance these skills.

"The hallmark of the liberal-arts graduate is the ability to deal with ambiguity, to keep learning, and the courage to deal with new situations," Bennet says. "The more you think about the requirements of the next century, the more relevant the liberal arts seem to become."

Another change that came after nearly two years of curricular self-examination at Wesleyan was a drive toward "greater coherence" in an undergraduate's first and second years. Coherence, Bennet says, means making better "intellectual connections" between subjects and skills. So Wesleyan is doing something fairly basic in matching faculty expertise with students' interests instead of randomly assigning advisers.

But it is also in the middle of a vast project to create more coherence by labeling all its courses by essential capability - and then "clustering" them by capability as well as by subject. This cross-indexing means students and advisers can use the school's Internet-based "WesMap" to discover that a course on "Women and Literature in France" is an "ethics-intensive" class - and mesh it with the capabilities the student needs.

"I think what we're coming to is the beginning of a century where you have infinite possibilities," Bennet says. "But the question is open again in a rather urgent way as to what kinds of standards we are going to apply as individuals and as we manage our common business. I think the liberal arts will help...."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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