Co-learners and Core: Education reform at Saint Joseph's College.

Author:Hall, Eric A.
Position:Indiana - Essay

On June 6, 1980, educational sciences professor Malcolm Parlett sent a memorandum to Saint Joseph's College administrator John Nichols commenting on his recent visit to the school. Nichols had asked Parlett to observe the college's reformed general education curriculum and offer suggestions for its improvement. When Parlett submitted his findings, the report was filled overwhelmingly with high praise and little criticism. He wrote that Saint Joseph's College's Core Curriculum presented "flexibility that provides for replenishment of energy and interest." (1) Parlett noted that Core faculty "are encouraged to think in interdisciplinary terms; to read books outside of their own subject; to realize the limitations of their own disciplinary teach in front of colleagues; and to collaborate with their peers in talking through, and worrying over, the overall structure of each Core segment." (2) In reference to the college's general education curriculum, Parlett recognized that "St. Joseph's was ahead of the rest of the country--Harvard in this respect can be thought of as a 'Johnny-come-lately.'" (3)

In the fall of 1969, Saint Joseph's College, a small, Catholic, liberal arts institution 90 miles from Chicago in Rensselaer, Indiana, replaced its traditional 54-credit general education program with a new curriculum that included interdisciplinary studies, non-Western requirements, and coursework requiring faculty to lead discussion sections outside of their fields of expertise. The college's president, Father Charles Banet, used the Second Vatican Council, which ran from 1962 to 1965, and new national literature on curriculum revision as an impetus for education reform. The college's interpretation of Vatican II, coupled with its approach to skeptical students and faculty, allowed administrators to achieve their primary goal: to alter the college's curriculum in a way that clearly distinguished it from the state's other colleges and universities. Once Saint Joseph's College implemented the new program, it quickly became a prominent model for institutions of higher education.

The curriculum reform debates at Saint Joseph's College between 1966 and 1986 mirrored national trends in education and the Catholic Church. The implementation of the college's Core Curriculum in 1969 marked a concrete example of Vatican II's document "The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World" applied to a local setting. (4) National education experts such as Earl J. McGrath and Gordon Vars found a tangible outlet for their writings on core curriculums at Saint Joseph's College, and the Core program at the institution proved to them that philosophical writings on education could become reality. Other colleges and universities visited and studied the college's Core Curriculum because it offered a model for adapting national and global literature to meet an institution's specific needs. Saint Joseph's College showed educators in the United States how to alter a curriculum to address the economic and practical needs of post-World War II society.

The Transformation of Higher Education

Following the Second World War, an enormous increase in college and university enrollment forced the federal government and academic institutions to redefine the philosophy and purpose of higher education. In the fall of 1945, many returning veterans took advantage of the new G.I. Bill and enrolled in educational programs rather than reenter the workforce. By 1950, 16 percent, or two million, of all eligible veterans enrolled in postsecondary education under the bill. The G.I. Bill, in addition to flexible admissions requirements and academic recruitment, resulted in a doubling of student enrollment at many colleges and universities between 1943 and 1946. At the University of Wisconsin, for instance, the entry of 11,000 G.I.s increased the size of the student body from nine to eighteen thousand. (5)

As a result of the G.I. Bill and the quantitative changes that came with it, American campuses--large and small--made qualitative adjustments as well. The increasing postwar enrollments led to the construction of new laboratories, classrooms, and dormitories, and institutions reevaluated the way they considered student applications. Prompted by the Soviet launch of the satellite Sputnik in 1957, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act (NDEA), which appropriated funding devoted to scientific research at colleges and universities throughout the United States. Many institutions gave preference to specialization and vocational training instead of general education curriculums. As engineers, chemists, and physicists passed writers, philosophers, and historians in prestige and need, the federal government offered grants to public universities that expanded their science programs. In 1960, postsecondary education received $1.5 billion in federal funding that amounted to a 100-fold increase since 1940. Former President of the University of California Clark Kerr noted that in 1960, only six universities received 57 percent of the federal funding, and only twenty universities received 79 percent. The large public universities clearly benefited most from the increase in federal science funding. (6)

Between 1945 and 1970, tuition-dependent private colleges and universities faced economic uncertainty in competing with public institutions. In 1947, roughly half of the 2.3-million students enrolled in 1,800 colleges and universities attended private schools. Forty years later only 23 percent of America's 12.4 million postsecondary students were enrolled in private institutions. Additionally, between 1969 and 1975, 800 new colleges and universities opened, and another 300 closed or consolidated. Public policy scholar Martin Trow argued that increased competition as a result of proliferating enrollment "resemble[d] the pattern of success and failure of small businesses in modern capitalist economies." (7) He indicated that in "the United States...the supply of places has on the whole outstripped demand; and buyers at both ends, students and the employers of graduates, have had a powerful influence on the behavior of the producers." (8)

The high number of postsecondary institutions and students forced private colleges and universities to offer distinctive curriculums to compete with public universities. Historian Richard Freeland noted that the private institutions in Massachusetts--Boston College, Boston University, Tufts University, Harvard University, Northeastern University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)--all responded to the new climate by emphasizing specific aspects of their programs and targeting particular constituencies. While Northeastern focused on marketing its work-study curriculum, Boston College agreed to promote Harvard's graduate program in return for Harvard's promotion of Boston College's undergraduate curriculum. Outside of Massachusetts, universities such as St. John's University and Columbia University survived in part because of their "great books" curriculums. Other colleges and universities set themselves apart from larger state universities by introducing honors programs, special-topics seminars, study abroad, independent study courses, and small class sizes. In the absence of federal funding, private colleges and universities had to alter their curriculums in creative ways between 1945 and 1970 to stay competitive with public institutions. (9)

In 1956, the president of the Carnegie Corporation offered Earl J. McGrath a grant to help shape and define the formal study of higher education in the United States. A professor and college administrator, McGrath's tenure as the U.S. Commissioner of Education coincided with the implementation of the G.I. Bill, increasing focus on vocational education, and the burgeoning partnership between higher education and the scientific community. He concluded after rigorous analysis "that teaching in both liberal arts and professional programs has been too much concerned with the purveyance of subject matter and too little with its influence on the character and personalities of young people...seeking to understand the meaning of life." (10) McGrath's time in education had convinced him that the professor's latest article, the institution's budget, and traditional academic autonomy all prevented colleges and universities from making curriculum reforms. (11) He explained, "I was convinced...that the undergraduate curriculum [in the United States] had to be redesigned with the purpose of providing a broader range of intellectual experiences for enlightened citizenship." (12)

Many scholars echoed McGrath's sentiments, concluding that the trend towards specialization created an immediate problem at American colleges and universities. Educator Jay W. Stein argued that "vocationalism" led many faculty to focus on upper-division and graduate courses, which tended to be "specialized, applied, and job-oriented." (13) He feared that seminal areas of study in the humanities and social sciences would spawn into more specialized departments like linguistics, sociology, or creative writing. Even in the 1940s, the federal Zook Commission contended that "liberal education has been splintered by overspecialization" and suggested that "the failure to provide any core of unity in...higher education is a cause for grave concern." (14) Both the Zook and Rockefeller Commissions recommended that colleges and universities focus on teaching students how to solve human problems before preparing them for the job market. (15)

Educator David H. Bayley also railed against "the segmentation of the American educational process," arguing that students had difficulty putting together the lessons of individual courses. (16) Colleges and universities, he contended, presented students with an abundance of information but never connected the material to national problems. Bayley complained...

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