A Talk to Launch ReVision Week, by President Katherine Bergeron
Feb. 7, 2014

I am so pleased to be here today and to be able to welcome you to the start of what promises to be a very important week for the Connecticut College community. “reVision” week is an opportunity for the campus to engage in an important dialogue about our mission as an institution dedicated to the liberal arts. What kind of education are we offering our students? What kind of education should we be offering? It’s an important question, and it comes at an important moment in the history of our College — as we are about to enter our second century. In fact, one could say that the question is not so different from the one the founders of Connecticut College were asking 100 years ago, as they prepared to open the doors to the very first students in 1915. Getting this answer right is as critical for us as today it was for faculty and students a century ago. And so I can’t tell you how happy I am to have arrived on campus at this very moment, in the middle of this rich conversation, and to have a chance to take part in it.

Before I go on, I want to take a moment to acknowledge Amy Dooling, chair of the Education Planning Committee and her fellow committee members — along with the two dedicated working groups that have contributed to this project for the last 18 months. They have done an impressive amount of work and everything that happens in the coming week is a tribute to them. We owe these colleagues a great deal, so let’s thank them now together.

I called my talk today “Liberal Learning, A Shared Responsibility” not only to signal the collective work that lies before us this week, but also to remind us that when we speak about “general education” in the liberal arts we are not talking about one portion of the curriculum, cordoned off from the major, but rather the whole, complex experience of learning that unfolds over four years. A residential education in the liberal arts is meant to offer students a sum that is greater than its parts. The real payoff comes not in the accumulation of isolated learning experiences but when those experiences — in different courses in and outside the major, and activities both on and off campus — combine and connect over time to yield a new kind of knowledge. That basic premise of integration and connectedness is what we must have in mind as we imagine the future curriculum at Connecticut College. I’ll say a bit more about that in a moment.

My purpose today is essentially to do three things: to introduce the task of curriculum reVision, to see where we are, and to look ahead to where we are going. More precisely, I want to say a word about the value of what we’re doing in looking closely at the curriculum now, at this moment in our history. Then I want to look back to the Connecticut College of a century ago, and consider its vision of education in relation to ours today. And finally, and most importantly, I want to go over the guiding principles ratified by the faculty in December, think about what they imply, and then point to some of the work that we need to do collectively — students, faculty, and staff — in order to make good on their promise, and put them into practice.

1. Why review?
So, the first and most obvious thing I want to say is that a curriculum reVision of the type that the College has embarked on is difficult work, and it is also very, very important work. It’s difficult because, in the diverse community that makes up a college, there will always be a diversity of opinion about our purpose as an educational institution. Which means that, collectively, there is often a fair amount of confusion about what we’re doing and why. The set of requirements defining a student’s “general education” is passed down from year to year, and from generation to generation, so that eventually no one remembers exactly why the requirements are structured as they are. So students often end up doing the requirements without much of a sense of purpose, sometimes simply to “get them out of the way.” And advisers end up without compelling reasons for explaining to students why we are making them do the requirements in the first place.

For this reason alone, it can be valuable to step back, to forget about requirements per se, and to return to first principles, our mission and purpose as a college. What is it that we expect all Connecticut College students to acquire during the course of their college experience? For that is what a curriculum is, after all: It’s a complete course of study. You probably know that the word “curriculum” derives from the Latin verb currere, which means to run. So a curriculum is a “course” in a very particular sense, as in a racecourse: a path whose changing directions you have to learn to navigate in order to complete and to compete. So, to return to the question: what kind of course do we expect students to run during their college experience? That is essentially what the Connecticut College faculty debated over the last 18 months. And I think it is fair to say: the curricular principles that they ratified in December are a strong statement about what it means to be educated in the liberal arts today. This is one reason why it’s important work.

But there is another reason: this question of what we’re doing at a college like ours has become even more pressing in our present moment, when a college degree is in ever higher demand, at the same time that the value of that degree is being questioned in every quarter. A historian of education once described the college curriculum in America as a place for measuring the dimensions of our changing culture, a place where “we have told ourselves who we are.”1 And I think this is a moment in the U.S. when the discourse about what students should or should not be studying in college is indeed signaling a cultural shift. So making a strong statement about the importance of the liberal arts — one of the greatest American traditions — is a particularly meaningful act at this moment in history. And I’m glad and proud that the faculty of Connecticut College had the energy and courage to take this on.

2. The enlightened curriculum
It’s interesting to point out that, 100 years ago, a similarly strong statement about the liberal arts accompanied the founding of Connecticut College. The very first president of the College, Frederick Sykes, was determined to define a new kind of curriculum for his new college born at the dawn of a new century. And so the course of study he proposed for the new women enrolled at Connecticut College melded the traditional with the practical: students were supposed to acquire meaningful, career-oriented skills alongside the knowledge that came from the conventional disciplines. And for good reason: It was 1913, a moment of great technological and social change, one with serious implications for the status of women. Sykes believed that the right kind of women’s education would produce modern graduates who could help improve the conditions of the modern world by serving the broader community in a variety of institutions. The original curriculum for Connecticut College was, in other words, an enlightened curriculum: a progressive statement about modern education whose practical orientation was inflected with social justice.

I mention this now because, to be honest, I am struck by how much the basic outline of this original curricular vision is with us today. A course of study at Connecticut College still mixes the intellectual with the practical; and the curriculum is still tinged with an ethos of social justice. In other words, we can see traces of the values of the founders of this institution in what we do today. And these core values are present, again, in the general education principles ratified by the faculty in December. So perhaps this is a good moment to turn to those principles, to see the persistence of this progressive vision in our own times.

3. The guiding principles today
Let’s take a closer look. These are the guiding principles:
The General Education Program at Connecticut College will:
• Cultivate different ways of knowing through disciplinary breadth
• Foster intellectual curiosity, critical thinking, and imagination in conjunction with practical skills
• Enable students to develop a rigorous, intentional, and integrative educational plan and a reflective educational experience
• Promote excellence through inclusion
• Put the liberal arts into action by engaging global and local communities

You will note that this statement is written from the perspective of the program itself. But what if we were to reframe the statement into a set of guidelines for students? It might read as follows:
At Connecticut College, students will:
• Cultivate different ways of knowing across several disciplines
• Develop their intellectual curiosity, critical thinking, and imagination
• Acquire practical skills and hands-on experience
• Put the liberal arts into action by engaging with global and local communities
• Promote excellence by deepening their commitment to the social, civil, and educational rights of all people
• Design a rigorous, intentional, and integrative educational plan
• Reflect on their educational development at key points in their career

In other words, students will:

THINK acquire breadth and depth of intellectual and creative experience
• Cultivate different ways of knowing across several disciplines
• Develop their intellectual curiosity, critical thinking, and imagination
• Acquire practical skills and hands-on experience

DOengage with the broader world
• Put the liberal arts into action by engaging with global and local communities
• Promote excellence by deepening their commitment to the social, civil, and educational rights of all people

LEADtake personal responsibility for their learning
• Design a rigorous, intentional, and integrative educational plan
• Reflect on their educational development at key points in their career

So here, again, we see some of the core values that have motivated the College from the very beginning: the intellectual combined with the practical, marked with an ethos of social justice in an environment of shared governance. In other words, this is a comprehensive plan. And it raises a number of questions: What might this mean for the first-year and sophomore experience? What might it mean for departments and majors? What might it mean for student engagement in programs outside the classroom and beyond the campus? These are some of the questions that you will be discussing in forums and meetings in the coming week. And I wish you all the best in those discussions.

I want to make just one final point — and return to something I said at the beginning. When we are finished with this work, the expectations we define will not be simply a “general education” program. It will affect the whole, liberal course of study, the whole curriculum. And it that sense, it is very much a shared responsibility: Everyone will have to contribute in order for this to work. Students will engage these principles in different ways across their four years of study: in first-year seminars and in senior projects; in the requirements for the major and in certificate programs; in activities done in class and activities pursued outside of class; in internships and study abroad; on campus, in New London, and in the surrounding communities.

It is an inspiring vision — and a compelling reVision — of our common purpose as an institution devoted to the liberal arts. I commend you for your commitment, for being here today, and for what you will do in the coming weeks to make that vision a reality. Thank you very much.

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1Frederick Rudolph, Curriculum: A History of the American Undergraduate Course of Study Since 1636 (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1977), 1.