Keene State is New Hampshire’s “liberal arts college.” We hear it all the time, but I have no idea what that means.

As the college is now involved in a strategic planning imitative and a review of ISP, I feel an obligation to share my thoughts on KSC’s future as a liberal arts institution. My comments are based upon having been a member of the Senate Curriculum Committee when we went from three to four-credit classes and started developing ISP. I also chaired that committee during some of the biggest changes. Additionally, I was part of the initial group working on the ‘critical thinking’ outcomes for ISP.  My involvement since then has consisted of talking with hundreds of students from all majors about the ISP program and the value of the liberal arts.

My impression is the college isn’t much different today than it was a decade ago. There is no scientifically valid evidence to suggest that our students are significantly better off than they were before ISP. Most, if not all, of our assessment attempts have had so many methodological flaws that the results may well be meaningless.

Additionally, KSC’s curriculum seems indistinguishable from colleges that aren’t marketed as liberal arts institutions. If we are different it may be only because of the letters (IH, IN, IS, etc.) in front of our class designations. The strategy to incorporate similar outcomes in all ISP classes, such as critical thinking, was a good one, but we failed miserably in our application.

To top things off, a vast majority of the students I’ve spoken with on this subject tell me they perceive very little benefit from ISP and the liberal arts. A good number even view ISP as a barrier to their graduation. Yes, there are students who value ISP, but they are in the minority. And regardless of student perceptions, there is no valid evidence to suggest that how we’ve incorporated the liberal arts benefits our students any more than curriculum models at other schools.

If my impressions are correct, then we’ve been engaged in a lot of work for very little, if any, return. And, based upon our past efforts, I have little hope that we’ll make much headway in the future. Previous administrators have ignored the most serious shortcomings of our supposed liberal arts curriculum. Equally problematic, the faculty who’ve been most involved are deeply entrenched in a outdated model of the liberal arts that is ill-suited for KSC.

What do our students need?  We can probably all agree that they need to be able to write well.  But unlike the best liberal arts colleges, our students will probably have just one ‘writing intensive’ course. We knew before ISP that an ‘English Comp’ class wasn’t sufficient in and of itself to help students learn to write. Yet, ITW still stands alone at KSC.  And what about oral communication skills? Students who graduate from a liberal arts college should be good at that too. Businesses regularly tell us how important this skill is and how much they want us to teach it. But we don’t have a required public speaking course(s).‘Critical thinking?’ That’s another pillar of a liberal arts education, but we don’t require such coursework either. And for those students who’ve had an ISP course with a critical thinking outcome, we don’t know if they’re any better at it now than before.

I know money is a factor when it comes to creating classes to introduce, reinforce and hone these skills, but if we’re really a liberal arts college than our administrators should be looking harder at  providing the funding so we can do more than ‘talk the talk?’

But, I wonder if we’d get anywhere even if we did come up with the necessary funds. There is little agreement among faculty about what a liberal arts college is, or of what a Gen-Ed/ISP course should look like at KSC. This is especially true for classes that involve critical thinking.

This disarray is due, in part, to a small number of very vocal professors who forget that our students are not like those attending Harvard or Yale. These professors have our students’ best interests in mind, but their viewpoint is too Ivory Tower for KSC. This is not a slight of our students. It’s recognition that they have different needs and abilities than those in the Ivy Leagues. Harvard and Yale grads are likely to get good jobs regardless of what they study. Our grads…not so much.

About half of our students are enrolled in majors with a direct link to a career. For the rest, how many do you know who don’t hope for a good job after graduation? Given this, it would seem we’d want the liberal arts at KSC to pragmatically lead students toward meaningful employment. Instead, we concentrate more on exposing students to the liberal arts for the sake of ‘appreciation’ or in an attempt to engage them in ‘the life of the mind.’ This might be okay if our students were all to go on to become academics, but few do. As one of my colleagues contends, “Professors can afford to be professional nerds. Our student’s can’t.”

We don’t have to professionalize our curriculum at KSC to make the liberal arts more obviously relevant to students, but few faculty members have been brave (or stupid) enough to question the traditional model of the liberal arts. Those who’ve done so have been met, at the very least, with contempt. I’ve been confronted with outright hostility. It’s so bad that junior faculty tell me they aren’t willing to confront this sacred cow because of fear of hurting their chances at promotion and tenure. Perhaps worse, some faculty don’t seem to understand what’s at stake and will teach their classes as they always have regardless of any changes we might make.

I believe in the value of a liberal arts education.  As one of my journalism colleagues details, “Journalism is the liberal arts in action.” I believe most majors can put the liberal arts into action too. But if we stick to an archaic model we’ll only make it harder for our students to succeed as we continue to force them to take classes that are intellectually and/or practically meaningless to them. We’ll also lose potential students who are smart enough to recognize that a good part of Keene State’s curriculum may not help them get what they want out of life.

Mark Timney

Associate Professor of Journalism

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