World insight: developing an internationally relevant curriculum

Heated debate and hours of staff time are worth it if students get the courses they need, says Charles Bailyn

January 13, 2016
Hand holding world map drawn in clouds

One of the time-honoured rituals of academic life is the Curriculum Review.

Whether the curriculum to be reviewed is that of a department, a faculty or an institution, the general pattern is the same. A committee is formed, and starts its work with high-minded considerations of what the students ought to know, and denunciations of what it turns out they don’t know.

The gap between the ideal and the real is then variously attributed to the malign influence of contemporary culture; the pastimes pursued by “youth these days”, which inevitably seem to inhibit rigorous intellectual focus; the supposed inadequacy of preparation by the secondary schools; and the uninspired teaching methods of colleagues who happen not to be on the committee.

Whatever reforms are proposed are then diluted, both because the resources necessary to implement them are not available, and because some of the proposed changes raise anxieties among key constituencies who then resist the entire package.

This description is perhaps too cynical. Useful reforms are typically implemented, clearing away some glaring weaknesses, and more generally prompting faculty members to re-examine and revise courses that may not have changed for some time. The committee members, their colleagues and the institution as a whole gain from the communal effort to understand what is going on from a variety of points of view, even if few formal changes result.

So it’s an exercise well worth doing despite the frustrations, and anyone who has the chance to participate should enter into the process with enthusiasm (but, perhaps, modest expectations).

More global insight: Why researchers must look to the developing world

Only rarely does one have the chance to try something fundamentally different. For the past few years I have had the privilege to serve as the inaugural dean of faculty at Yale-NUS College, a new liberal arts college founded by Yale University and the National University of Singapore. One of the first decisions made was to create a curriculum that deviates significantly from that of either of our parent institutions.

This allowed a much more wide-ranging consideration of curricular models than those of us who had previously participated in such exercises had experienced before.

In particular, we chose to implement a common curriculum, in which all students take the same set of courses in their first semester, and a number of courses in common after that. This curriculum goes beyond traditional “Western civ” core curricula by extending into the social and natural sciences, and within the humanities by placing Asian and other traditions on a truly equal footing with “canonical” Western works.

We are now in the third year of delivering this curriculum. Rather than expound on the virtues and difficulties of the approach, let me describe one minor incident that can stand in for the whole.

A colleague was lecturing on the Odyssey, describing the ways in which Odysseus transcends traditional categories – he has attributes both divine and human, male and female, Greek and foreign. As an aside, she said: “Mengzi would have totally understood this”, referring to the Chinese philosopher who made significant contributions to discussions of categories and the “rectification of names” in the Confucian tradition.

Every student in the class was studying Mengzi that week in the parallel course on philosophy and political thought, and thus (at least in principle) understood the reference. So what happened in that brief five second aside? Links were created between China and the West, between literature and philosophy, and the whole question of taxonomy and categorisation, crucial in fields ranging from science to art, was elevated to a more general level.

Perhaps a small moment in itself – but the promise of a common curriculum is that there will be many such moments, hundreds perhaps over even a single semester, in which such intellectual links can be forged.

Forging such links is perhaps the most important thing we can do for our students. Links between different cultures and civilisations, between different disciplines, between different people – all are necessary in this fast-moving global age.

In the past, students needed their teachers to impart information to them – the origin of the “lecture” was reading aloud books that were too expensive to duplicate before the inventing of printing.

But these days, more information can be accessed in 10 seconds with a phone than existed on the entire planet a few generations ago. What students need now is not so much information as such, but strategies to evaluate the quality of information that is readily available, and the scaffolding necessary to use it properly and to link it to other activities and knowledge.

Read more: Yale-NUS College extends reach of liberal arts’ ‘forbidden fruits’

Teaching these links is difficult, because it requires knowledge and understanding that go beyond what any individual faculty member can bring to bear. Our common curriculum is taught in teams of 6-12 faculty members from different disciplines.

Team members spend many hours – some would say too many hours – debating with each other on what should be taught and how it should be presented. Our own most recent curriculum review suggests that we need to go much further in ensuring that instructors are cognizant not only of the material in the courses they are teaching but the rest of the common curriculum as well – a daunting task for scholars trained to go deep into a particular specialisation.

But a curriculum that is created through the individual choices of faculty members about what courses to teach, crossed with the individual choices of students about what courses to take, might not really provide the guidance students need and expect as they try to navigate the ocean of information available today. Departmental majors and programmes designed primarily to produce adepts in a given discipline, without considering how the students’ new-found understanding will interact with other areas of knowledge and endeavour, may likewise prove inadequate.

In contrast, a curriculum that is derived from discussions and arguments among faculty with a wide range of personal and disciplinary perspectives, informed by and aligned with the lived experience of the students before and after they graduate, holds the promise of reinvigorating the liberal arts both intellectually and within the general society.

Such a curriculum isn’t easy to produce – the discussions tend to become quite heated. The effort required on the part of the teaching staff is considerable, and given the structure of contemporary academe, which makes quantity of research output at both the individual and the institutional level the primary metric of success, arguably professionally threatening.

But the health of the whole enterprise of liberal education in the 21st century requires a longer-term view, one that allows the necessary time and space to consider real reform well beyond the simple-minded application of “disruptive technologies” and the minor adjustments routinely made by inbred departments and institutions.

Institutions and administrators must find ways to recognise and reward the effort required to contemplate and implement truly new approaches. Faculty must rise above their own training and experience to embrace ideas and approaches far afield from the traditional standards of their disciplines. Only then can we legitimately ask our students to put forth their best efforts as well.

Charles Bailyn, dean of faculty, Yale-NUS College.

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