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Making Classical Curriculum Work

University Business, Feb 2013

A traditional liberal arts curriculum focus doesn’t have to be boring. In fact, it often involves interactive, interdisciplinary approaches. Stephanie Fabritius, vice president for academic affairs and dean of Centre College (Ky.), explains that it is increasingly multi- and interdisciplinary in nature. “The curriculum is designed so that connections are drawn among classes and between class material, and in a global context.”

At St. John’s College, a “Great Books” institution with campuses in Santa Fe, N.M., and Annapolis, Md., the classroom approach is driven by student questions, says Gabe Gomez, director of communications. The average class size is 15 students, and instructors, known as tutors, guide the conversation in an open Socratic method of inquiry. “Ultimately, it is the Great Books that are the most important teachers, and our students are given the opportunity and the tools they need to engage with the primary texts,” he notes.

That emphasis on involving students in their learning and allowing them to form their own opinions, rather than memorizing a specific set of facts, is fairly standard among genuine liberal arts colleges. “In our view, the lecture format does not work as well as the discussion format,” says Charley Dewberry, founder and dean of Gutenberg College (Ore.), which employs a Great Books curriculum, with all students taking the same courses and obtaining the same degree, a B.A. in liberal arts.

“Becoming educated is a skill and like all skills, it is based on the student’s desire to learn and their willingness to practice with someone better skilled, [as in learning to play] music or sports,” Dewberry says. “In the lecture format, the professor is telling the students what is important and what they will be tested on. In our format, we do not have a set of right answers to regurgitate. Rather, the students can make rational arguments for whatever position they would like to defend. It is their education. They are learning from the individuals who have given culturally important arguments for positions throughout our history and development of our culture.”


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