Integrative Education

Parker Palmer, the noted author of Courage to Teach, has a new book out called The Heart of Higher Education: A Call to Renewal.  He and his co-author, Arthur Zajonc, are interviewed by Scott Jaschik in today’s Inside Higher Ed.

According to the article, Palmer and Zajonc are promoting an “integrative” way of teaching that “moves past individual disciplines.”  Here is how they describe such “integrative teaching”:

Our world is multidimensional; so is higher education. Every disciplinary area is like an axis or road through the landscape of life. But each captures only a fragment of the whole, offers only a partial picture of the full reality and so lacks breadth. At the first level, integrative education combines mastery of a single discipline with a vibrant engagement with other disciplines, near and far. Too often we seek to redress lack of breadth by the simple juxtaposition of courses through a distribution requirement. No real integration arises in this way. Other pedagogical means are required that bring the richness of learning into the hearts and minds of students and faculty. But this level of integration redresses only the breadth dimension of education, and fails to treat the heights and depths. Integrative education cannot shy away from questions of meaning, purpose and values. One method of addressing these is through the wide range of contemplative methods of learning that are being developed by faculty across the disciplines and in co-curricular contexts as well. Finally, all learning is situated, we live our lives within community and we should not neglect our responsibilities it. To this end, we cannot neglect the cultivation of the fundamental human capacities for compassion and altruistic action. These too need to be part of an integrative education. In this way we achieve a meaningful integration of the breadth of learning, with a serious and intimate exploration of our highest aspirations, never forgetting the suffering around us that calls for deepening our human relationships and good work within our diverse communities.

I am tentatively on board with Palmer and Zajonc Colleges and universities should be more concerned with educating for values.  In fact, I spent a couple of years on a committee at Messiah College that was responsible for administering the first-year CORE, an interdisciplinary course designed to address some of these integrative issues and introduce students to the liberal arts and the religious commitments of the college.

But why can’t this kind of value education be done through the disciplines?  Why is it that whenever we talk about teaching for character or inculcating virtue, compassion, altruism, love, humility, etc… in our students do we always appeal to interdisciplinarity?

Disciplines are essential to a liberal arts college because they offer students different ways of thinking about the world that are essential to a well-educated person.  Granted, few scholars think of their disciplines in terms of personal transformation or the inculcation of values, but I am not sure that the answer to this problem is to completely move beyond the disciplines.  Instead, we need to think hard about how the disciplines can educate toward the kind of values Parker and Zajonc are talking about.

I am working on a book on the way this might happen in the discipline of history.  It’s tentative title is The Power to Transform: A Christian Reflection on the Study of the Past. It is forthcoming with Baker Academic.  I also know of another forthcoming series of short studies, edited by my friend Jay Green, titled “Loving God Through the Disciplines.”