Liberal-Arts Collaboration Seen ‘Very Long Process’

By Lynn Olson — February 08, 1989 5 min read

Atlanta--Both liberal-arts professors and teacher educators are being pressured to make reforms in what and how they teach. But getting the two groups to collaborate has been an uphill battle, participants said here at the Holmes Group’s third annual meeting.

“It’s very necessary, but I think it’s going to be a very long, evolutionary process,” said Michael Sherman, director of teacher education at the University of Pittsburgh.

That is so, he said, “because the academic community is not very interested in getting its hands dirty by working with teacher-education faculty or students.”

One problem, others noted, is that arts-and-sciences faculty members disagree even among themselves about what is meant by a liberally educated person.

"[P]eople don’t know what the hell they’re doing--the people who are doing this work, who are teachers of the humanities,” complained Benjamin DeMott, Mellon Professor of English at Amherst College.

He argued that humanities teaching is the work of “educating the imagination,” so that students can understand and sympathize with experiences different from their own. By attempting to “objectify” the humanities, he said, educators have mistakenly substituted the “exterior” of the discipline for its “core matter.”

Similarly, mathematics should teach students to build mental representations of problems and to master complex thinking strategies and processes, said Robert Davis, professor of mathematics education at Rutgers University.

“We somehow lost sight of that,” he said. “That’s virtually not in the traditional curriculum at all.”

In fact, recent debates about liberal learning have been “obsessed” with defining what students need to know, while ignoring how it should be organized and taught, said Lee Shulman, professor of education at Stanford University.

He argued that students should study more limited material in depth and learn a set of processes for understanding a particular subject well. And he advocated the use of “case studies,” which he said develop students’ understanding of the context in which ideas develop and allow them to see the “human hand” at work.

Future teachers, Mr. Shulman cautioned, are likely to teach both what and as they have been taught.

“Whatever understandings or misunderstandings you infect them with,’' he warned the audience, they will carry forward to future generations of students.

But despite the importance of meshing content and pedagogy, speakers noted, the history of collaboration between schools of education and colleges of arts and sciences has been fraught with tensions.

Between 1968 and 1973, for example, the federal government funded a program designed to encourage just such interaction.

But the “Trainers of Teacher Trainers” program, as the project was known, failed because it did not take into account the central forces governing higher education, said Paul Olson, a professor of English at the University of Nebraska who participated in the program.

By ignoring university budgets, accreditation mechanisms, and the criteria for promotion, he said, the project “performed its services precisely on the margins of the university and not at its center.”

He cautioned that the same fate could await the Holmes Group unless it addresses the necessary changes in university governance.

Many of those attending the conference, for instance, noted that professors are rewarded for publication and scholarship and not for the quality of their teaching. “Why should they get involved in studying and improving their own teaching, or in the preparation of teachers?” asked Mr. Sherman.

Agreed Martha Garland, professor of British history at Ohio State University: “Collaboration with education colleges is counterproductive to the reward system at research-oriented institutions.”

On her own campus, she said, “the Holmes Group is perceived ... to be an education-school piece of business.”

“We’ll try to be cooperative,” she said, “but we don’t on a regular basis get up and say, ‘How do we do a better job of teacher education?”’

Representatives from several institutions described initiatives that are intended to promote collaboration on their campuses. At Trinity University, faculty members in education and the arts and sciences have developed a major in the humanities for prospective elementary teachers. And speakers from the University of Pittsburgh said similar joint projects on their campus had developed informally over the past decade.

But Stephen M. Koziol Jr., professor of education at Pittsburgh, cautioned that in most instances these projects were initiated by education faculty and continue to involve a relatively small group of people. And William Smith, professor of English, added that if the principal players left, “the whole thing could crash and burn tomorrow.”

Other educators noted also that the Holmes Group initiatives will cost money and that few universities have confronted the need to reallocate or increase resources for them.

In contrast to previous Holmes Group meetings, however, few participants expressed strong doubts about the wisdom of the organization’s reform agenda.

Their complaints focused primarily on implementation issues--such as the role of the national office and the need for better communication among members--and not on the substance of Tomorrow’s Teachers.

“The residual dubiousness is disappearing rapidly,” said Gary Sykes, assistant to the Holmes Group’s president and assistant professor of education at Michigan State University.

Agreed Judith E. Lanier, president of the organization: “There is a determined commitment to the reform endeavor and to the complexity and the difficulty that it entails.”

She argued that the major challenge now is to find the financial and human resources to keep the organization’s agenda moving.

During the next few years, the group plans to issue a series of reports on teacher preparation. And it has extended a membership invitation to 10 research universities whose participation in the consortium would significantly increase the involvement of minority students and faculty.

The institutions include: Atlanta University Center Inc.; George Mason University, Xavier University, North Carolina A&T University; Texas Southern University; The City University of New York; Grambling State University; Hampton University; Prairie View A&M University; and Tuskegee University.

The Holmes Group’s board has recommended, however, that the organization not exceed 120 institutions. The original proposal called for the participation of at least one major university from each of the 50 states, and at least one such institution for every 25,000 to 30,000 teachers in a state or region.

In the past, Ms. Lanier had predicted that up to one-third of the organization’s members would drop out of the consortium after an initial wait-and-see period. Now, she has revised that estimate.

“I don’t think the membership is going to drop,” she said last week. “I think it’s going to stabilize around these 100 institutions.”

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A version of this article appeared in the February 08, 1989 edition of Education Week as Liberal-Arts Collaboration Seen ‘Very Long Process’