Interdisciplinary programs in liberal studies are among the most exciting new aspects of graduate education today. Their goal is not that of traditional graduate education, to train scholars in a discipline. They are not designed primarily to provide credentials for professionals but to connect, at the graduate level, with the love of learning. Typically, the liberal-studies student wants to proceed broadly, to range across fields rather than head down a narrowly defined course of study within departmental constraints.
He wants to learn, but doesn't want or need a professional degree.
The first graduate liberal-studies program was established in 1953 at Western University. From the late 1950s through the early 1970s about two dozens programs were developed.
Some schools like Wesleyan and Dartmouth, with their resortlike settings, focused on summer school and attracted teachers. Others, like Johns Hopkins University, were not interested in targeting special groups and followed the academic year.
Still others, like the university of Oklahoma, with a limited market in the actual community of the university, developed programs for those who lived too far to come to class regularly. Credit is given for work done independently with short intense periods required on campus for group discussion and classroom experience.
What all the programs had in common was interdisciplinary design, flexible time requirements, some kind of unique core component, and a summative experience to pull the learning together at the end. They were all intended for adults with undergraduate or professional education behind th0103no need or desire for further professional education, and an abiding interest in general education that integrated humanistic themes.
In the late '70s a need for new sources of enrollment in colleges and universities intersected with public interest in personal enrichment. University administrators were quick to respond to this public readiness for and interest in liberal studies, and there are now more than 39 programs in places as diverse as Hollins College, the New School for Social Research, and Southern Methodist University.
Washignton University in ST. Louis is a case in point. It had graduate and professional education in departments and schools. It offered a variety of programs in its School of Continuing Education, both for credit and enrichment.
Graduate programs in the humanities were being seriously eroded by the narrowing market for professionals in fields such as English literature, history , and philosophy. Ralph Morrow, then dean of the graduate school, was concerned with the effect of this erosion on the morale of the faculty, a loss of a sense of mission among those with a history of training young professionals in their fields.
As Dean Morrow saw it, graduate education in the humanities had to be offered in unconventional ways to new sets of learners. He knew from market research that in the St. Louis area there were 150,000 adults with four or more years of college. The university was willing to gamble that enough of these adults would undertake an exciting, well-designed program in liberal studies.
Morrow took his probelm to the graduate planning committee, which then appointed a professor of history, Robert Williams, to design and direct a liberal-studies program. Professor Williams chose four other humanists to assist in the planning process: one each from English, philosophy, Germanic language/literature, and art history.
Their mission was to draft a plan presenting a broadly humanistic opportunity that would attract both adult learners and the senior faculty they hoped to recruit to teach.
They wanted a program that would have breadth, coherence, and flexibility while encompassing the virtues of the liberal arts education.
Their proposal centered on a series of colloquia, each planned and taught by faculty from different disciplines, within one of four general core areas: ideas and inquiry; the creative imagination; science and human values; and historical understanding.
For example, a professor of literature and a professor of history have worked together examining the idea of citizenship in a course entitled "Public And Private Man from Pagan Antiquity to the Renaissance." A classicist and a political scientist have led a colloquium studying "Classical Traditions in American Life."
The requirement for team teaching and interdisciplinary design provided an opportunity for experimentation. Offerings that were successful in the master of liberal arts program were adapted to the regular curriculum and offered to undergraduates in the day school.
Another unexpected bonus was faculty enthusiasm. The returning adult graduate students tend to be highly motivated, full of questions, and willing, even eager, to take risks in discussion.
They are, after all, already midcareer, or in many cases, finished with those matters entirely. The result: lively class discussions that are clearly rewarding to students and stimulating to faculty.
As one of the professors insists: "There's an urgency and seriousness to them. They're no 18-year-olds who are in the college because it's the thing to do at that age. We're not training immature minds but dealing with equals. We share a community of experience, a position of soul."
The application process at Washinton University as at many others, is a graduate school process. Applicants must provide transcripts, references, an essay, and be interviewed for admission to the program. Students are admitted provisionally by a committee; they must complete two colloquia with a B-or better before they can become candidates.
It's not a cut-rate master's degree, the administrators emphasize, just a different one. The degree fulfills the Johns Hopkins goal of "a high-level guided inquiry into the world of ideas and values and the roles they play in contemporary life."
Within each of these categories, specific courses could be offered that would cut across traditional boundaries. Colloquia would be interdisciplinary by design and team-taught. In each case, the class would consider an era, problem, or them from two different standpoints.
The diversity of students is another important element in the vitality of the program and of the colloquia. Participants include engineers, lawyers, managers , the president of a large corporation, homemakers, a journeyman plasterer, teachers, a nurse, an editor, a social worker, a fashion designer. Some are retired; one has just finished a bachelor's degree and is waiting to enter law school; most are midway in their work lives.
As Jack clancy, an engineer and manager in the aerospace industry, explained it, "I'm not interested in a degree, just the classes. I've always done a lot of reading, but it was random and I did't have anyone particularly to discuss it with. I'm taking Pascal on the plane because I've gotten interested in religious writers."
"What I like about it," added Larry Amitin, a young man in the book business, "is that you don't have to be in the program for some reason, not to become an engineer or something. I'm in it to learn, to broaden my frame of reference. I like the different kinds of people. They come from every walk of life and have a lot to put into the pool of ideas. Undergraduates are all in the same place in their lives. After every class I fell 'that was really something.'"