Berman proposes agenda for change in the liberal arts

Russell Berman

Russell Berman

The second half of the 20th century has been marked by "crisis in the authority of professorial expertise," said Russell Berman, the Walter A. Haas Professor in the Humanities.

Much in the university system is passé, he said. Part of the solution may be "less authority, greater interactivity, smaller classes." Such a program for revamping should encourage students "to listen to other people, take other people's points of view seriously."

The director of the Introduction to the Humanities (IHUM) Program and a professor of comparative literature and of German studies, Berman spoke Feb. 14 as part of the Award-Winning Teachers on Teaching series, sponsored by the Center for Teaching and Learning. In his talk, titled "Rethinking 'Liberal Arts,'" Berman portrayed the usual liberal arts program as being as outdated as rotary phones, and he outlined an agenda for change.

Much of his talk focused on IHUM. Last year's "self-study" shed light on the longstanding Stanford program and identified challenges for undergraduate education. Berman called the survey "an exciting opportunity to look under the hood."

Between 5,000 and 5,500 surveys were distributed; 1,400 were returned. Nine hundred gave qualitative responses, in addition to filling out the survey. Berman characterized the response as "enormous."

Students' reaction to IHUM followed a bell curve, with 13 percent on either side hating or loving it. "That's really good news, because the buzz in Stanford culture"—for example, Stanford Daily columns, he said—"tends to be really negative."

"The notion of massive student hostility is a caricature," he added.

The hostility was reserved for other targets, however: Berman said he was caught off guard by "the extent of vitriol that students would reserve not for faculty but for each other."

"The problem is, they don't like each other. That's OK. Most people don't like each other," he added. The crux of the "student-to-student hostility" is that "they want to hear experts, not each other." Their comments berated students they felt were "droning on" in class—what Berman characterized as "the hostility toward the student who dares to speak."

Students ranked discussion with peers the least-valued aspect of IHUM in the survey. "They don't understand that they have to engage with each other," Berman said.

"I assumed a smiley-face freshman class; I was surprised to see that darker side," he noted during a question-and-answer period following his presentation.

In part, the difficulty of mutual engagement stems from larger divisions within society as a whole, he said. "We face a new situation today for a complicated set of reasons."

"The diverse undergraduate population is a challenge to pedagogy," he said. The divide between rich and poor has led to "the increasingly hierarchical character of K-12" with its "under- and over-resourced schools."

Berman suggested one reform that would change everything: Cap philanthropic donations to higher education and encourage more donations to K-12 schools.

"Which high school you went to maps significantly onto social class, if not fully," Berman said. As a result, "some majors are inaccessible to some students. That borders on structural discrimination."

In these, as in other areas, "IHUM is a microcosm of American society," Berman said.

Another pressure that hampers students' appreciation of each other is the "centrifugal forces of specialization." This slant encourages students to see education as an extension of "individualism, and the pursuit of an individual career."

Such an emphasis has a significant downside, he noted. Exhortations to students to "follow your dream" can, in practice, result in reifying "your own eccentric obsessions." Those obsessions, he said, "may not be that interesting," which students may not realize because they "never had to defend them" in the context of a broader, more inquiry-based liberal arts environment.

In considering future directions in the liberal arts, our society must consider whether we want young people to "fast-forward toward a career track." If so, the best way to go might be to skip IHUM and encourage specialization, an alternative more aligned with European education, with its emphasis on "the maintenance of elite expertise."

Berman emphasized that he is not arguing for a return to the canon, but rather exhorting us to reflect on the consequences of the choices we have made and the directions we are taking.

Although the institution of IHUM is only a decade old, "in fact, it is part of a 90-year history" that began with core programs at Columbia and the University of Chicago and is not an arbitrary Stanford invention. Initially, the program was designed in part to help students "ramp up from high school to college learning." That mission, he said, "remains indispensable."

The approach in the 1940s and 1950s was to inculcate material that "students had to know, that was crucial for students to learn." Eventually, however, the "Western Civ" program "was criticized for reasons of canonicity."

The notion of "the university as a factory has given way to a celebration of diversity" and also an ethos of individual creativity.

In the future, Berman said, "the desideratum is an educational model of supple networks." He suggested a range of options:

1) Change courses and group interactions to accommodate more teamwork, "without faculty policing them." Currently, students are "interacting significantly outside the surveilled area." Such a move would require new systems of evaluation.

2) Alter the program in oral and written communication to require more writing, particularly "writing across the curriculum."

3) Arrange coursework to allow more "continuity over time"—in other words, find ways of incorporating students who attended the class in previous terms so that they can model projects and mentor the newcomers.

4) "If I haven't pissed you off, this will," Berman said, noting the "massive amount of space" being used by faculty offices, a result of the "myth" that there is a professor who works there. He called for more "open spaces, flexible workstations."

5) Put as much of the library collections as possible online and make them accessible to a wider public.

6) "Rethink requirement structure for a degree." Noting that "most majors are structured like a baby graduate program," Berman suggested "this is nuts," largely because most students will not go on to earn graduate degrees in these subjects. He suggested reducing the requirements for majors to "instead emphasize developing cognitive skills, communication skills."

"There's a real tension between structure of scholarship in the U.S. and this kind of teaching agenda," Berman said. An emphasis on expertise "can be hidebound and arrogant," and classes that emphasize innovation and creativity "can also become eccentric and weird."

"Departmental structure is part of the problem as well," he said, because it has become mostly a system of "labor management for the university structure—making sure the faculty show up."

During the question-and-answer period, one person suggested that students dislike themselves for their lack of expertise.

"That's the mission of IHUM," Berman said, describing it as teaching students to "participate in the production of knowledge."

Their education should move them beyond "getting SAT questions right," he said. "The world is more complex."