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Northwestern University

The New Liberal Arts

While it is impossible to know what the future will bring, we can be sure that our graduates will face a world marked by rapid and dramatic economic, demographic and technological change. As a college of arts and sciences, our goal is to provide our students with an interdisciplinary education that will ensure their personal and professional success in this changing environment. For that reason, our curriculum emphasizes critical thinking, problem-solving and persuasive communication skills. As I discussed in this venue last term, when I described our intellectual and cultural diversity, that while we do offer a skillset, we more importantly promote an adaptable mindset. This is a way of thinking that privileges flexibility, adaptability, curiosity, courage, and persistence.

To ensure that the way we guide our students through their years at the College effectively inculcates this way of thinking, this winter I asked Ann Bradlow, associate dean for academic initiatives at the College, to lead a committee of faculty members, students and staff that will review and recommend changes to our degree requirements. The ad hoc Committee on Degree Requirements represents the first comprehensive review of our curricular foundation in more than two decades.

The charge to this committee reads as follows: “The Committee will engage with faculty, students, College leadership and others in a review of the College’s current curriculum and degree requirements. The Committee will then develop a set of learning outcomes that should characterize a Weinberg College graduate — skills, knowledge, and ways of thinking that students should have when they graduate from the College. Once these desired outcomes have been identified, the Committee will recommend revisions to the degree requirements so that College coursework and credits support the desired learning outcomes.”

Key to the Committee’s work is the development of an up-to-date definition of an interdisciplinary arts and sciences — or “liberal arts” — degree. The meeting of traditional notions of a well-rounded education and desires for intense specialization yielded in the 20th century the distinctive character of the liberal arts — with a set of distribution requirements creating some breadth and the major subject providing an intersecting axis of depth.

Another less obvious principle of this form of education is captured in the word “liberal.”

The essence of this word seeks to capture the freedom students have to chart their course of study, experiencing both the depth of specialization in a major and the breadth of our vast curricular offerings. While our students are free to choose their majors and their electives, we of course offer some structure to help them avoid the excesses of over-specialization or superficial scatter. This structure guarantees a certain type of freedom, a freedom from the pressures to pursue a purely pre-professional path, and the discipline to think deeply and critically from a disciplinary perspective.

As the Committee’s work progresses, I encourage all to feel free to give us ideas, opinions and data. The curriculum and the degree requirements that structure it are at the heart of the College’s mission and identity. By reviewing the curriculum and, if necessary, thoughtfully adapting it, we aim to realize our goal of offering an extraordinary education, leading to lives enlivened by learning.

Adrian Randolph

P.S. I cannot let this opportunity pass by without offering my profound thanks to Marie T. Jones, associate dean for faculty processes and governance. After many, many years of loyal service to Northwestern and the College, Marie will be retiring this summer. In her time at Northwestern, she has performed all manner of professional roles, but most recently she has been at the epicenter of faculty recruitment and retention. Her calm in the midst of this sometimes unruly and unpredictable set of processes has set a model for us all. She will be sorely missed at 1918 Sheridan Road and by all those at the College and University with whom she has worked.

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