North Hall Society

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

This is academic jihad!

"Stand, therefore, having your loins girded about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness, and your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace; above all, taking the shield of faith, with which ye shall be sable to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God."

No, that was not Samuel Jackson in Pulp Fiction. That was St. Paul in Ephesians 6:14-17. And what you see pictured here are two snapshots of a great warrior preparing to do battle against the forces of darkness, which threaten the cultural literacy of future graduates of Lenoir-Rhyne by undermining the liberal arts curriculum.

Who is this great warrior? Is he one of the many students you can now see on campus sporting one of these shirts? Is he a faculty member, likewise clad in the armor of this shirt? From his flaring nostrils, the gritted teeth, and the clenched fists, one can see his determination.

Beware, O Enemy, O Dark Lords of Moria. For even as your amass your armies of committee Orcs to the beating of drums, there arises without your walls a mighty sea of warriors -- Hobbits, Dwarves, Elves, Rangers, Ents, all under the fearless leadership of Gandalf the White -- posed to bring down your walls and liberate these hallowed halls of learning from the tyranny of foreign domination. Freedom for the academy! Freedom for the liberal arts!

Resist the machine!
Free your mind!
Save the Liberal Arts
at Lenoir-Rhyne!

[Tip of the hat to Kirk G. Kanzelberger of Sapor Sapientiae. For shirts and other gear like this, visit The Academy Store]

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Students' right to know

Kurt Schmidt recently responded to my remarks to him, posted under the title of "Kurt Schmidt: Why are liberal arts classes being cut?" on the North Hall Society blog (Sept. 5, 2005). He said that after doing an article for the next issue of the Lenoir-Rhynean on the cancellation of classes, he was planning to talk at length with Dr. Sorenson about how much of the information about core revisions he would like released to the students and when. As you know, he said, this is not a simple issue, requiring a great deal of time and research.

I appreciated what he wrote, but had some misgivings as to the possibility of his having a heavy-handed kibosh put on his investigations for the Lenoir-Rhynean. I replied to his remarks by saying I'd be glad to help in whatever way I can. Then I offered the following comments.

Do keep in mind, I said, that students have a right to information purtaining to their education. Things like honesty in advertising apply to academic institutions too. LR claims to be a "liberal arts" institution. If the proposed curriculum entails cutting a number of majors from the LR program, this information should be openly stated. If current core requirements in the liberal arts are being trashed and replaced by a single 8 hr. smorgasboard puff course so that no student will be required to have more than a superficial dabbling in the liberal arts, this should be openly stated.

If you find yourself being stonewalled, it may be that there are parties who do not wish the facts to get out too early, for fear they could create a groundswell of opposition among students and their parents who could well feel betrayed by such a move. I would not want to see you manipulated. Students have influence, and should have the information needed to form their opinions and make their voices heard. Graduating classes often make a gift to the school -- usually some sort of physical gift. The senior class now has an unprecedented opportunity of making a far more significant gift to the school -- the gift of preserving its bona fide status as a liberal arts institution with liberal arts majors. Think about it.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Kurt Schmidt: Why are liberal arts classes being cut?

Kurt Schmidt, a campus leader in the Lenoir-Rhyne Student Government Association, emailed me, saying he's been charged with writing an article for the school paper on the administration's decision to cut classes based on enrollment numbers. I replied that it's difficult not to see this issue in the context of the much larger picture of the administration's designs on cutting classes from the liberal arts core of the Lenoir-Rhyne College curriculum. Here's what I wrote Kurt, following a few preliminaries:

What you're asking about concerns a concerted attempt by the administration to reduce the liberal arts core requirements in the LR curriculum under pressure from the growing hegemony of the professional programs. Majoring in a liberal arts program at LR may require as few as 30 credit hours (or ten courses) in the major, leaving lots of room for electives. By contrast, majoring in a professional program -- like Occupational Therapy, Nursing, Education, or Business -- may require a vastly larger number of courses in the major, mandated by these programs' accrediting agencies. Students in these majors have a hard time squeezing everything into four years. In many national universities, for example, nursing students can expect to complete their programs only after five years of study. As a result, the administration is feeling the pinch from a number of directions. First, there's pressure to give the already top-heavy professional programs more elbow room, so their students can finish in four years and have some room in their program for electives. Second, there's pressure to carve out this elbow room from the liberal arts core. Third, since market demand for liberal arts courses is down, there is pressure to reduce the number of core requirements in the liberal arts, perhaps even at the cost of discarding a number of liberal arts majors, thus jeapordizing LR’s status as a bona fine liberal arts college.

About a year ago, the administration formed a carefully selected ad hoc committee to address these concerns of the administration and begin work on revising the core. The committee, convened by Dean John Sorenson and chaired by Dr. David Ratke, floated a number of proposed revisions indicating a reduction in the liberal arts core across the board by a staggering 20%, and by as much as 25% in the School of History, Philosophy, and Religion. The effect, quite naturally, was to immediately raise the hackles of the liberal arts faculty. The committee was suspected of being little more than a pretext for rubber stamping and railroading through the administration's predetermined agenda of radical cuts in liberal arts programs. When the constitutional legitimacy of the committee itself came under fire in faculty assembly, a number of more charitable voices intervened to help reconstitute the committee as a legitimate committee of the faculty.

More important than any of these technicalities, however, is the question of how such envisioned changes in the complexion of the LR curriculum can be seen as according with LR's stated mission. LR prides itself in being a “liberal arts” college, which is about the only thing that distinguishes its educational programs from those one finds at significantly less expensive programs of local community colleges, technical colleges, and business schools. At the heart of a liberal arts education are the curricular core requirements in the humanities, math, and the sciences. It is the hallmark of the Western liberal arts tradition that an educated person should know some basics about the world, including the sweep of world history, politics, religion, philosophy, ethics, the social sciences, math, and the natural sciences. The natural question, then, is: How can slashing 20-25% of these programs from the core curriculum be reconciled with the presumption of a liberal arts mission at LR?

The administration's answer is that nothing will be lost, in principle, in the proposed new curriculum. All of the liberal arts will be represented in an 8 hour humanities core course required of all students. But there are several serious problems with this answer.

First, an 8 hour tour through a liberal arts buffet is hardly a substitute for the solid liberal arts core curriculum we now have. In fact, it is hard to avoid viewing such an 8 hour humanities survey as mere "window dressing" in an education one might acquire for a fraction of the cost at a local community college -- either that, or something one might get at a finishing school for young ladies. Dr. Carolyn Huff of our history department administered a beginning-of-semester quiz in two of her history classes this fall and found that 37 of 60 students could not identify Muhammed; 43 students could not identify who Confucius was (answers given included a “Greek god” and “Muslim prophet”); and 16 could not identify Jesus Christ. The question is whether we’re satisfied with this level of “learning” (I use the term loosely). The proposed curriculum would eliminate the currently required courses in history, and the chances of an 8 hour humanities survey correcting such egregious misconceptions, let alone deepening student knowledge, would seem to be next to nil.

Second, the assumption that students would thereby be freed up to choose from a much larger selection of electives, while attractive in theory, raises the question of the integrity of the envisioned educational curriculum. A proposal floated by the core committee in August, 2005, bundled together courses in psychology, book keeping, and philosophy as “electives” alongside courses in "physical wellness." This would mean that students could opt between a course in philosophy or psychology and, say, bowling or badminton! One wonders at the intelligibility of making such curricular alternatives a matter of student discretion at an institution that claims to be a liberal arts college. Yet the fact that the committee was willing to float this as a serious proposal suggests the degree to which the administration appears to be willing to allow "market pressures" to determine its offerings. This might seem fiscally prudent on the face of it. But ask yourself this: How can LR with its stratospheric tuition costs ever dream of competing with the professional programs offered by state-subsidized public universities and community colleges? There is simply no comparison. Furthermore, it raises the "wag the dog" question -- whether the college is allowing the "tail" of whatever happens to be in vogue among students to "wag the dog" of its academic offerings. One wonders at the prudence of allowing the siren song of "market forces" to erode the traditional strong suit of a private church-related college like LR, which is its strong liberal arts program within the context of a small, religiously affiliated community. Furthermore, it is difficult to see how slashing religion core requirements by 25% and eliminating the religion capstone course (REL 400) can be reconciled with the stated religious mission of this "college of the ELCA," which “seeks … to clarify personal faith,” and holds that “wholeness of personality, true vocation, and the most useful service to God and the world are best discerned from the perspective of the Christian faith” (see the LRC Mission Statement).

Third, one wonders how long LR will be able to sustain her image as a bona fide liberal arts college when the proposed changes would very likely eliminate the possibility of sustaining majors in subjects like physics, math, history, English, art, philosophy, religion, and French. In a development that is hard to see as unrelated, a significant number of liberal arts classes with less than seven students in them were summarily canceled at the beginning of this Fall, 2005 semester. The rationale offered was financial -- that we had to cut small classes to save money. But the savings from slashing small courses is negligible, while the hardship this inflicts on our liberal arts majors in the final two years of their course work is significant.

The larger question at issue is what kind of an institution LR wants to be. Does she want to trade in her liberal arts core for a vocational school curriculum? Does she want to acquire the reputation of being an overpriced community college or trade school? Or does she want to stand by her mission and justly pride herself on being a church-related liberal arts college? If so, she cannot yield to utilitarian pressures and allow the tail to wag the dog. Yet if we follow the money trail in our recent campus building projects, it's not hard to see this is where we're headed. The new McCrorie Center for Allied Health Science and Athletics and the Mauney-Schaeffer building renovation (housing the Charles M. Snipes School of Business, Computer Science, etc.) represent major capital investments. Yet neither program represented by these building projects is related essentially to the historical liberal arts mission of the college. Liberal arts education, as traditionally conceived, is not primarily a matter of skills acquisition. Such practical know-how has its place in life -- certainly in the market place -- but is not what a liberal arts education is essentially about. Let me illustrate. In a recent Billy Bob Thornton film, Friday Night Lights, a high school football star faces a confident future. Football scholarships pour in from prospective universities across the land. Ironically, the young man has so neglected his academic education that he cannot read his own acceptance letters. Suddenly, his future hopes are dashed by a serious knee injury, and all the practical football skills he invested his whole high school career in learning are for naught. All he learned how to do, all he knew how to do, was to play football. And now that football is gone, he’s left with nothing. The moral? Skills come and go. But your mind lasts forever. And if you've starved your mind in school, what are you left with? Nothing. The technical skills you learn in a professional or athletic program may be obsolete within a few years. But liberal arts learning lasts for ever. Skills may make you useful. But the liberal arts feed your mind.

LR students have a right to a solid liberal arts education. They shouldn't settle for anything less. LR students have the right to major in whatever they want. If they want to major in business or nursing or exercise science, good for them. But they should also have the right to major in physics, math, English, history, art, philosophy, religion, or French if they want. And that right should not be taken away from them because of market trends extraneous to the rationale of a liberal arts education. LR students have the right to know that their LR diplomas will count for more than a diploma from a local community college or business school. They have a right to believe that the education paid for by their parents’ hard-earned money is the liberal arts education LR claims it is. They have a right to believe that LR stands by its mission statement and means what it says. These rights are now on the line.

Resist the machine.
Feed your mind.
Save the liberal arts
at Lenoir-Rhyne!

T-shirts, buttons, magnets, and tote bags with related slogans may be found online at: Support the liberal arts!

Friday, September 02, 2005


LR students and faculty, state your position and take your stand. Buy your shirts, buttons, or totes that make your statement at the online Store. The image is of Raphael's "School of Athens," representing the tradition of liberal arts learning. Get out the word.