The evolution of a liberal arts education

In 1978, Denison University became the nation’s first coeducational college to require students to take a Minority or Women’s Studies course prior to graduation. In 2010, the college has adjusted its approach to how students explore multicultural perspectives. The faculty adopted two major proposals at a special meeting on Sept. 21, and in so doing they illustrated how Denison designs and defines a liberal arts education.

The first provision established an “Interdivisional Requirement” (or “I” requirement) in the general education (GE) program. It replaces the former “Interdisciplinary and World Issues” category, which was introduced during the last GE revision in 2004.  (That category replaced the groundbreaking “J” requirement of 1978 as part of the college’s shift from an inquiry-based to a divisional-based model, with the intent of giving students more ownership of their education.)

In short, the new “I” requirement is structure-oriented, requiring students to take a course in or cross-listed with one of seven interdisciplinary programs (Black Studies, East Asian Studies, Environmental Studies, International Studies, Latin American and Caribbean Studies, Queer Studies, and Women’s Studies). The fundamental difference between the new “I” requirement and its predecessor is that specific focus on content—race, gender, class, etc.— has been removed from the language of the requirement. Thus, it makes room in the curriculum for the second provision adopted that day.

That requirement, called “Power and Justice” (or the “P” requirement) establishes a new core competency amid the existing competencies of writing, oral communication, and quantitative reasoning. As stated in the newly revised GE document, “the goal of the ‘Power and Justice’ requirement is to cultivate the ability to question our own place in the structures of power and privilege that constitute human societies.”

In their rationale for the “P” requirement, the Academic Affairs Council noted its deliberate connection to Denison’s mission and the diversity statement that the faculty adopted in 2006. AAC also reasoned, “By placing this requirement among the core competencies of the general education, the college makes a significant statement to our students and to the community of the central importance of this educational goal, and ensures that all students have the opportunity to inquire in a focused and sustained way into the impact of the structures of power and privilege in all our lives, and the impact we can have on them.”

In a prelude to the faculty discussion of the proposals, Provost Brad Bateman noted that the “Power and Justice” roots can be traced back to the fall semester of 2007, when the campus responded to instances of homophobic and racial insensitivity. (An account of those events can be found in the Winter 2007-08 issue of Denison Magazine.) Since then, Bateman said, the faculty has explored how Denison could more explicitly address issues of diversity and living within a diverse community. He cited several examples of how the college has responded, including seminars for first-year students on what it means to be a Denison student, discussions of diversity and the college’s mission within the advising process, and finally the two proposals presented at that meeting. “There’s much work that’s been done,” he noted. “You’ve held this work, you’ve taken it seriously, and I think it speaks well of us as a community. And I thank you for that.”

Both proposals passed only after thorough, purposeful, and civil debate, as is typically the case when Denison’s faculty considers curricular changes. As the deliberations on the “P” requirement neared a vote, Associate Professor of Sociology/Anthropology Veerendra Lele underscored how it aligns the GE program with Denison’s mission to be autonomous thinkers, discerning moral agents, and engaged citizens. But, he added, it does not compel them to be agents of social change, because that’s not Denison’s place. “This proposal, and really a Denison education, is neither prescriptive nor directive. It’s liberating. It doesn’t prescribe a set of rules. It requires that we provide opportunities and possibilities. That’s what a liberal education does.”

The new requirements will apply to all students matriculating at Denison for the first time as of August 29, 2011.  Students matriculating at Denison prior to that time must complete their GE requirements under the system that was introduced in 2004.

Read below for the full text of both the Power and Justice and Interdivisional proposals:

Power and Justice Requirement: The general education “Power and Justice” requirement will be met by the completion of one course that examines the dynamics of power and privilege in diverse human societies. “Power and Justice” courses must explore or interrogate questions of justice, equity, and identity in relation to issues such as race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion, class and/or (dis)ability in domestic and/or international contexts. Immersion in these questions must constitute a significant portion of the course content. “Power and Justice” courses must actively facilitate examination of those characteristics that may be shared by all human beings across cultural difference(s) and must  promote critical thinking about oneself and one’s own culture as well as the inherent challenges in exploring cultures and experiences different from one’s own. This requirement may be met by courses that satisfy other general education requirements. Any course can be designated as a course fulfilling the d) “Power and Justice” requirement, provided it has been approved as such by both the relevant faculty person’s department or program and the Academic Affairs Council and the teaching faculty. Departments are encouraged to develop such courses as part of their requirements for the major. The administration will provide resources for the development of such courses. AAC will develop standards that a course must meet in order to satisfy the “Power and Justice” requirement.

Interdivisional Requirement: The Interdivisional course will engage students in topics of study that span Denison’s divisional structure. Students may fulfill the requirement by taking a course in or cross-listed with one of the following interdisciplinary programs or concentrations: Black Studies, East Asian Studies, Environmental Studies, International Studies, Latin American and Caribbean Studies, Queer Studies, and Women’s Studies. Other current or future interdisciplinary programs must demonstrate that their programs draw from two or more of the college’s divisions and must apply to and be approved by the Academic Affairs Council in order for their courses to be included in this GE requirement. A course may not be used to fulfill divisional requirements at the same time that it fills the Interdivisional requirement.

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4:27 PM March 9, 2012

Tavner Dunlap wrote:

My wife and I regularly review the liberal arts offerings of undergraduate schools of interest. (How sad is that). We have found the offerings of NYU to be among the most challenging and enlightening undergraduate offerings in America. Denison would be well served to look at how they structure each of their courses to meet most of the liberal arts goals laid out for only a few courses at Denison. With the cost of education as high as it has gotten and the marginal value that employers place on undergraduate degrees, undergraduate programs need to build their curriculum in such a manner that they achieve their liberal goals of multi-cultural and interdisciplinary education, provide a solid real world set of skills directed at a variety of professional pursuits and experiences, and take back the role of the professional setting the basic bar of high achievement in the field, permitting the student to raise the bar if he/she is able.

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