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What ARE the goals of a college education? And where’s the librarian?

I spent the weekend crunching numbers (in the hopes of being able to make some meaning out of the survey responses in our CMS evaluation project) and reading Our Underachieving Colleges by Derek Bok (the once and current president of Harvard). The CMS eval headache will have to wait for its own post. Let just say “The Saga Continues.” But Bok’s book is fascinating.

As part of his look at the history of colleges and universities in this country and how they’ve arrived at the curricular and pedagogical methods currently in vogue, he points out that most curricular reviews take place in the complete absence of a clear and defined list of goals. Nobody has mapped out what colleges should be teaching their students in the course of four years, or, if they have, the curriculum does not actually support those goals. So Bok lists 8 goals that he thinks are actually actionable as well as being universally important. According to Bok, institutions teaching undergraduates should be teaching:

  • The ability to communicate
  • Critical thinking
  • Moral reasoning
  • Preparation for citizenship
  • Living with diversity
  • Living in a global society
  • Breadth of interest
  • Preparation for work

Of these, he says, teaching “Critical Thinking” is a goal held by the greatest number of faculty.

Nationwide polls have found that more than 90 percent of faculty members in the United States consider it [teaching critical thinking] the most important purpose of undergraduate education. In view of the wide variety of interests and backgrounds represented in a typical college faculty, such a strong consensus is impressive (pages 67-68).

But what constitutes critical thinking? See if you can see the librarian’s role in this list of skills from page 68 of Bok’s book.

…an ability to reorganize and define problems clearly, to identify the arguments and interests on all sides of an issues, to gather relevant facts and appreciate their relevance, to perceive as many plausible solutions as possible, and to exercise good judgment in choosing the best of these alternatives after considering the evidence and using inference, analogy, and other forms of ordinary reasoning to test the cogency of the arguments.

After reading this list and recognizing in it those ACRL information literacy standards that just haven’t been resonating with my faculty, I began to wonder why librarians have chosen to develop their own jargonized definition of a habit of mind that faculty obviously feel very strongly about. Why can’t we draw upon the vocabulary that faculty are already using to show that developing sophisticated student scholarship (which is the classroom interpretation of information literacy) is part of critical thinking? Why can’t we make an argument for integrating this type of critical thinking into curriculum because it is the content faculty are teaching rather than something extra that has to be crammed into syllabi? So far, I’ve been able to “convert” one faculty member to this view… only 200 or so more to go.

Published inLibraries and Librarians