Teaching and Learning in the 21st Century by Richard R. Beeman

A few weeks ago the undergraduate deans of the eight Ivy League universities gathered to discuss the question: "What will be the character of a liberal arts education in the 21st century?" None of us was so bold as to try even to imagine what the answer to that question might be a half century from now, but we all had been trying to look ahead ten or fifteen years. As the discussion unfolded, there was striking convergence among us respecting both the essential aims that should guide us in constructing the liberal arts education of the 21st century and the challenges that we were likely to face as we carried out that task.

We all agreed that the essential purposes of a liberal arts education have been and will continue to be timeless ones (at least since the mid-eighteenth century, when Franklin conceived of the University of Pennsylvania; if we go back to the early seventeenth century, to the founding of Harvard, we find a different, and narrower, spirit at work). Our all-encompassing goal will remain that of "education for life." The component parts of that goal are equally beyond dispute: to awaken and nourish intellectual curiosity; to help our students learn to think critically and analytically; to improve their ability to communicate their thoughts; and, more generally, to prepare our students to be informed and responsible citizens in their communities and in their larger society--a society in which the requirements of an informed citizenry are rapidly changing. While agreeing with all of these aims, one of our number, observing the increasingly practical, vocational orientation of so many of our students, joked that what we were really doing was "educating for middle age," for, he noted, it may be only at that stage, their careers successfully launched, that our students will be able to appreciate fully the values underlying the education they received many years before.

Within the context of those eternal verities, most of the Ivy deans were struck by two important but apparently contradictory facts. The first--one which I believe is notably the case in the College of Arts and Sciences at Penn--is that members of our faculties are now working harder and more self-consciously to live up to the ideal of a liberal arts education than at any time in recent memory. The list of our accomplishments at Penn within the past decade is impressive. We have created freshman seminars in order to awaken the intellectual curiosity of our students. We have steadily increased our commitment to undergraduate research in order to nourish their intellectual curiosity. In crafting a writing requirement and, more recently, a quantitative skills requirement, we have been ever more attentive to the importance of developing critical skills in reasoning and communication.

Yet in spite of our success in fulfilling the broad ideals of a liberal arts education, the attitudes of many of our students and of their parents toward the utility of those ideals is perhaps more skeptical than it has ever been in history. The eternal verities--based largely on the process of a liberal arts education rather than on the specific content and tangible and immediate results--are often seen as insufficient unto themselves. That skepticism is most crudely expressed in the oft-cited parental query: "Do you really expect me to pay $30,000 a year to have my son/daughter major in History (or Classics or Sociology)?" There are, we know, some very good answers to that question, but the fact of the matter is that our rejoinders, however passionately articulated, have not always been convincing.

The extraordinary revolution that is occurring in the technology of information storage and delivery poses, along with obvious educational opportunities, serious challenges to any university which offers a residentially-based education founded on a methodology in which a professor stands in front of a class and delivers knowledge. One of the deans present at our meeting predicted that the greatest challenge facing us would be to figure out what aspects of an undergraduate education the "virtual university" could not deliver and then to devote our energies to assuring that those services were sufficiently valued by the next generation of our students and their parents to allow us to stay in business. But here we encounter contradictory evidence. While it is nearly a cliché to say that the "information revolution" is changing the way we teach--the way we "deliver" knowledge--it is also clear that those educational experiences that students consistently find most valuable have little to do with the delivery of knowledge.

In exit interviews conducted with members of the College graduating class of 1995, virtually every student asked to identify an element in his or her Penn education that had been the most significant pointed to a direct, personal encounter with a professor which had opened their minds or changed the way they viewed the world. Direct encounters between students and faculty--in the contest of ideas, in the testing of hypotheses, in research, in the construction of knowledge--those encounters are, I think, the key to our ability to construct a successful liberal arts education for the 21st century.

If we are going to be successful as teachers in the 21st century we are going to have to spend less time polishing our skills as dispensers of knowledge and more time thinking about the ways in which we can facilitate the process by which our students learn. While the scholarly literature on what constitutes good "teaching" is fractious and inconclusive, there is a pretty solid consensus among those who have studied cognition that human beings--from early childhood through the full expanse of adulthood--learn most effectively not when knowledge is dispensed to them but, rather, when they are actively engaged in the construction of knowledge. The important implications of this well-known truth are, ironically, only becoming apparent and pressingly relevant to those of us in higher education in the present age, when the number and variety of competing dispensers of knowledge are growing exponentially and as we come to recognize that the only important edge that we have on our competition lies in our ability to create communities of faculty and students engaged collaboratively in the construction of knowledge.

Much of what we already offer in our curriculum in the College at Penn is well-suited to the creation of communities of learners. Freshman seminars, at their best, certainly approach that ideal; the growing slate of service-learning courses, precisely because they employ collaborative and problem-oriented approaches to learning, are among those our students esteem most highly; and most of us, I am sure, have felt the satisfaction of having directed a thesis or research project in which an undergraduate has discovered the joy of constructing knowledge. But as Larry Gladney has reminded us in his recent contribution to "Talk About Teaching," there are all too many of us, the technophobic Dean of the College included, who are content to be dispensers of knowledge rather than facilitators of learning. While schools of arts and sciences face many challenges as the 21st century nears--among them overcoming consumer skepticism about the "usefulness" of many of the subjects to which many of us have devoted our lives--our single greatest challenge lies not in changing the content of what we offer to undergraduates (although, indeed, we will need to do some of that), but rather in engaging our students more actively than ever before in individual and collective acts of discovery.


Talk About Teaching is now completing its fourth year as a series co-sponsored by The College of Arts and Sciences

and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching. Dr. Beeman is professor of history and dean of The College.

Almanac, Vol. 44, No. 31, April 28, 1998