The Colloquium for Liberal Education included a roundtable discussion in the Schellhase Commons. The panel included educators from higher...
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Curriculum Matters in Second Annual Colloquium on Liberal Education

Ursinus College welcomed academic leaders from colleges and universities across the country for the Colloquium on Liberal Education, funded by the Teagle Foundation and held over two days on the Ursinus campus.

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What should we read and why should we read it?

These are important questions that shape any college’s core curriculum, and they were the foundation of the second Ursinus Colloquium on Liberal Education, held on June 6 and 7 on the Ursinus College campus.

About 40 academic leaders from colleges and universities across the country participated in “Curriculum Matters,” funded by the Teagle Foundation and designed to foster candid discussions about how to handle challenges across higher education today, and perhaps most importantly, encourage educational leaders to further innovate the curriculum at their own institutions.

It’s fitting that such a colloquium was, for the second straight year, held on the Ursinus campus, given that its Common Intellectual Experience and inquiry-based core curriculum has long provided a model for finding solutions to the kinds of questions presented by attendees.

“We’re here to dissect the very fabric of the educational mission—the curriculum—and I’m really proud Ursinus, which has a curriculum that is celebrated nationally, has been shown to transform lives, and not only shapes [our students’] futures, but also improves their communities, their families, and certainly the health of the planet and people,” President Robyn Hannigan said in her opening remarks.

“At a time when the value of liberal education is often questioned, we have a responsibility to make these connections and outcomes clear and accessible to all,” she said.

Innovating a college curriculum ensures that educational institutions remain responsive to the needs of students, society, and a rapidly changing world, ultimately preparing graduates to thrive in their careers and contribute meaningfully to their communities. The attendees grappled with how a well-crafted curriculum can be successful in doing just that.

“The premise of the colloquium is that when we tackle these issues head on, we make better judgments for our students,” said Paul Stern, an Ursinus professor of politics and one of the co-organizers of the colloquium.

The event began with a panel discussion moderated by Ursinus Professor of Education Stephanie Mackler. It included expertise from Laura DeSisto of Johns Hopkins University, Katherine Jo of Duke University, Jonathan Zimmerman of the University of Pennsylvania, and Pano Kanelos of the University of Austin.

Mackler began that roundtable discussion by acknowledging that there are differing viewpoints on what makes a good curriculum, and whether it include certain required texts or courses, whether it be based upon a set of enduring questions, like at Ursinus, or something else.

“The point of the matter is to say that each of these competing views ultimately takes responsibility for the curriculum, which is another way of saying that to all of us, the curriculum matters,” Mackler said.

The second day of the colloquium included three different sessions focused on three core questions: What should we read? Why should we read? What should the reading do for us? In those sessions, participants discussed, among other topics, what makes a good book or a transformative text, and what students should take from those texts in order to broaden or deepen their thinking.

“As you know, reading complicated texts is hard,” Stern said. “And technological developments have amplified this difficulty, to the point that some now recommend that we forego reading in favor of speaking and listening. But if, as I think we have to stick primarily with reading, we also need to think about the activity of reading itself. And more specifically, we need to discuss an approach to difficult texts that let students see that their efforts are worthwhile.”

Many of the panelists acknowledged the need for a shared curriculum while welcoming diverse voices and perspectives.

“We need a lot of expertise from a lot of fields to build these courses,” said Elizabeth Catania of Vanderbilt University. “Texts have to be approachable for faculty and students and we have to be able to ask the questions we want the students to ask.”

And, as other participants pointed out, a challenge lies in shifting the narrative away from viewing education through a purely vocational or transactional lens.

“Reading is not just an exercise,” Hannigan said, “but a means to equip students for navigating and impacting the world.”

That world will continue to be shaped by a fierce competition for humans’ attention, Ursinus Provost Gundolf Graml said. “The Ursinus Quest curriculum models how higher education institutions can empower students to navigate this attention economy with a broadened skillset that enables them to combine critical thinking with solutions-focused doing.”

The colloquium was organized by Mackler, Stern, and Ursinus faculty Diane Skorina, Meghan Brodie, Matt Kozusko, and Johannes Karreth. For more information, visit ursinus.edu/colloquium.

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