Foundations of the Liberal Arts

By Daney Daniel Kepple


It’s 9:00 on a sunny Saturday morning. A school bus loaded with students and faculty lumbers away from the Rhodes campus. There is not a great deal of conversation on board because, in the opinion of most passengers, no one should be stirring at such an hour.
The bus heads north, crosses Jackson Avenue, then Vollintine, entering territory unfamiliar to most of the students. The bus makes a right turn and comes to a stop at Cypress Middle School. The passengers disembark and troop inside. They are welcomed by principal Raymond Vasser, who offers doughnuts, orange juice and milk in the library.

English professor Dan Gates’ first-year students will reinforce their own knowledge by teaching writing at Cypress. Geology professor Carol Ekstrom’s students will encourage the budding scientists here to enter the citywide science fair. Today is their introduction to the school and the neighborhood.

When the students are seated, anthropology/sociology professor Carla Shirley speaks to them about problem solving across community lines. Dorothy Cox, project manager of the Rhodes Hollywood Springdale Partnership, briefs them on what to expect when they tour the adjacent area.

“People might stare at you,” she warns. “Some of them will ask you what you’re doing here.”

Then history professor Charles McKinney distributes a handout:

Community Profile

  • Incidences of alcohol abuse
  • Feeling of inadequacy/powerlessness
  • Variety of mental health problems
  • Flagrant ignoring of the law
  • Significant police presence
  • Lots of old buildings
  • Prejudiced; intolerant
  • People don’t take care of their dwellings

He asks the students to give him adjectives to describe this community. They come back with “depressing, impoverished, unsafe, hopeless, sad, desperate.”

Next he asks them to describe their feelings about working in such a community. One confesses to being apprehensive. Another says it’s important to show concern. One wails that the problems seem insurmountable. A voice from the back of the room talks about compassion.

Professor McKinney says, “Apparently you assumed that the profile was of the Hollywood Springdale community. Actually, it is a needs assessment of Rhodes College prepared by one of my classes last semester.”

Some of the students are incredulous. Others are angry. They all appear to be shocked. No one seems sleepy anymore. “That’s not an accurate picture of Rhodes!” one insists.

“Exactly,” McKinney agrees. “Just as what you see on television is not the whole truth about this community.”

Similar scenes are not unusual at Rhodes today. Thanks to a restructuring of the college’s curriculum—the first major restructuring in more than 30 years—these scenes will become commonplace in the future.

Southwestern (the college’s name prior to 1984) experimented with a three-term system from the late 1960s to the late 1980s. In 1987 it returned to a two-semester academic year. The change necessitated some revisions in the academic program—degree requirements dropped from 124 to 112 hours, for example—but the curriculum still revolved around the four academic divisions—fine arts, humanities, physical sciences and social sciences. There was some discussion at that time of a complete revamp.

In the intervening years, popular culture and life in America changed dramatically. Technological advances—computers, the Internet and World Wide Web, cell phones and iPods—created a generation unaccustomed to, and impatient with, passive learning. This is the multitasking generation whose members are often observed watching television, instant messaging and talking on their cell phones simultaneously. Individual professors and some departments have adjusted pedagogical methods to accommodate new realities, but systemic change has lagged.

Rhodes President William E. Troutt listed curricular reform as the third of his 10 initiatives in his inaugural address in 2000. A task force, led by religious studies professor Gail Streete, was appointed to study the issue. The next year psychology professor Marsha Walton served on the task force for a year, then in 2002 put her scholarly research on hold and took the reins of the Faculty Educational Development Committee. Her charge was to lead the committee and the faculty in the design of a curriculum that fulfilled the Rhodes Vision.

Considerable discussion was required. “That’s what we as a faculty do best, and that’s why the end result is as good as it is,” Walton said.

Indeed, over the three-year gestation period, “There were intense discussions about what education means in this world at this time,” said Walton. “The discussion was very lively, in a positive way. We heard from people who don’t usually talk about curricular issues, and anyone who wanted to comment got a respectful audience. As a result, we have a better understanding of what we believe is important in a liberal arts education and a deeper respect for one another. The process was important to us as a faculty.”

In adopting this new foundations curriculum, the Rhodes faculty affirmed its conviction that education in the liberal arts and sciences is the best preparation for living a responsible and fulfilling life. It endorsed the concept that students should be deliberate agents of their own learning. It stated boldly that the best liberal arts education cannot be achieved by a passive recipient of information.

Translating theory into practice, the faculty defined the experiences that lay a foundation for a liberal education and lifelong learning. Then it adopted a set of 12 requirements for graduation that ensures that students can demonstrate the following:

  • ability to examine critically questions of meaning and value
  • excellence in written communication
  • understanding of how historical forces have shaped human cultures
  • ability to read and interpret literary texts
  • ability to analyze artistic expression or performance or production of art
  • facility with mathematical reasoning and expression
  • understanding of scientific approaches to the natural world
  • understanding of the systematic analysis of human interaction and contemporary institutions
  • ability to view the world from more than one cultural perspective
  • intermediate proficiency in a second language
  • participation in activities that broaden connections between the classroom and the world
  • participation in activities that encourage lifelong physical fitness

Under the new system, students, with the help of their advisers, will choose among a wide array of courses from every academic discipline that will ensure that they meet these 12 foundation requirements. They must still take either the Search or Life course, though the requirements will be met in three semesters rather than four. All will have to meet departmentally-established requirements for their chosen major.

Why Change?

Professor Ellen Armour of the Religious Studies Department served as scribe for the Educational Development Committee.

“A couple of years ago I had a student, a double major in biology and religious studies, who signed up for my feminist theology class in his senior year,” she recalled. “He was really excited because he wanted to do research on ecofeminism. After conferring with his adviser, he had to drop the class and take an introductory course in another department to fill a distribution requirement so he could graduate. That meant he didn’t get to experience what would have bridged his two major interests and, more likely than not, reinforced his passion for lifelong learning. A curriculum like that gets in the way of education.”

Armour recalls another student who “discovered his passion for philosophy and religious studies early on.” He took both Search and Life, which used up a great deal of his latitude for electives. He won a Buckman Scholarship to study at Cambridge, which put him in a further squeeze. “I can’t tell you how much labor it required to make sure every class counted for something,” she said. “Even with all our efforts, he had to come back from Cambridge and take some introductory level courses to fulfill distribution requirements.

“It shouldn’t be that hard to follow your passion,” Armour concluded. “It’s the very best students who are most often hampered by a rigid curriculum.”

Removing that rigidity was a major goal. Another was to charge students with more responsibility for designing their own educations.

“Students—maybe all of us—resent requirements, especially if they seem capricious,” mused political science professor Steve Wirls, who sat on the Educational Development Committee and is now on the Educational Programming Committee that is charged with implementing the changes. “The new system is much more in keeping with the Rhodes culture of respect. The foundation approach allows for full explanations of why things are required and the expected outcomes. It gives students as much space as possible to shape their educations.”

Another goal was to bring greater focus to the courses students take and to recognize that their activities inside and outside the classroom should be mutually informative and energizing.

“When they arrive here, many students don’t understand the value of scholarship,” said Robert Strandburg, associate dean of academic affairs for undergraduate research and service. “They think education is about getting As, making money or becoming famous. They don’t understand the value of knowing how to think.

“It is our responsibility to infect students with academic excitement. We do that by giving them interesting problems. In trying to solve those problems, they discover their skills. They find that very exciting.”

The foundations curriculum affirms the outside-the-classroom activities traditionally valued in higher education—laboratories, research projects, internships and study abroad. And it endorses the educational value of some activities once thought of as extracurricular.

“Talk to students involved in Rhodes St. Jude Summer Plus (a program that gives science and psychology majors the opportunity to work in researchers’ laboratories at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital), and they are excited about their lab projects,” said Strandburg. “Invariably, they also want to tell you about having lunch with the kids. That experience helps them put their work into context.

“Our students who are service scholars and fellows get a similar experience. What they do out in the community forces them to reflect on social conditions so they come to class with better questions. Service follows the same pedagogy and produces the same effects as laboratories and research projects—discovery, independence, problem solving, contextualization, engagement and motivation. It enriches the classroom experience.”

Senior Becky Saleska, president of Rhodes Student Government, agrees.

“The lines between ‘academic’ and ‘extracurricular’ have been blurred,” she said. “Gone are the days of morning classes and afternoon activities. Our classes have collided with the real world. We learn through service and we serve through learning. While some tension still exists between the roles of community involvement and research in education, we are beginning to understand that the two are able to walk hand in hand.”

To Dean of the College Robert Llewellyn, every moment is a potential moment of learning.

“Internships, service, primary research in the Memphis community, leadership positions, club activities—all these and other experiences that transpire outside the classroom—and often off the campus—offer rich opportunities to see the liberal arts at work.”

The foundation curriculum emphasizes two other areas—equalizing students’ workloads and giving the faculty the latitude to develop courses that stimulate their own passions. This was accomplished by following a growing trend at liberal arts colleges—converting from classroom hours to course credits. The change, which is already being phased in, will be completely in place in the fall of 2007. The class of 2011 will graduate with 128 credits, which they will earn by taking four, four-credit courses for eight semesters.

Walton explained, “Under the old system, students have taken four or five courses in a semester, and some of them have had laboratories. That means that some students have been able to devote 25 percent of their time to each class while some have been able to give less than 20 percent. The credit system, long in use by most of the elite liberal arts colleges, will allow the faculty to have universal expectations.”

“The uniform four courses per semester allows us to gauge our demands more accurately and reasonably,” said Wirls. “Taking five courses at once fractures the brain too much. It requires too many shifts in direction within a day.

“I started demanding more from students early in the discussions,” he added. “They still do the same readings but now I require written discussions of those readings. That increased their engagement in the daily assignments and in the course as a rule.”

Armour’s experience has been similar. “When we changed the class period from an hour to 50 minutes, I didn’t reduce the required readings. Instead, I asked for daily written responses to the reading and I got the distinct sense that students were reading more completely and thoroughly. In other words, they are learning more because more is being demanded.”

After a pause she added, “In my early years of teaching, I was very concerned that all the important things got said out loud. Now I look at content in a context. Because religion is such a potent cultural force, I want my students to be able to think critically about it. An exclusive focus on content coverage can get in the way of that aim.”

Llewellyn explained the change this way. “One of the things that our curricular reform accomplishes is a restructuring of the way we deploy our time. We made the degree requirements less burdensome in terms of sheer number of courses so there can be more intense engagement with the courses taken. The increased expectations include higher accountability for out-of-class learning.”

While the results on the new curriculum are not yet in, the signs are positive.

“What this reform promises is more than classroom hours or minutes, more than collecting courses on a transcript, more than a skill set achieved after four years of undergraduate study,” Llewellyn concluded. “It is an education characterized by a sense of the connections, the relationships, the wholeness of what we know and what we aspire to know, and how we marshal this knowledge in support of effective leadership and action in our communities and the world.”


Rhodes administrators who have occasion to speak with alumni are often puzzled by what on the surface feels like a paradox: First-year students tend to be temperate in their praise for the Search for Values in the Light of History and Religion course. The great majority of alumni, on the other hand, describe it as “the best course I ever had,” or simply, “life-changing.”

Greek and Roman studies professor David Sick, who currently directs the program, doesn’t think that’s so odd.

“The major purpose of the course is to lead students to evaluate their basic assumptions about history, the religions of the West, ethical questions,” he pointed out. “That’s not always a comfortable experience.”

Comfortable or not, it is one that is highly valued by the Rhodes faculty. The Search course, or the more disciplinary-focused Life: Then and Now alternative, is still required for graduation under the foundation curriculum. Under the new credit system, however, the requirement is satisfied in three rather than four semesters.

Sick is working with his colleagues both to streamline and beef up the courses.

“There will be no change in the basic goals,” he says unequivocally. “We will still provide a very rich introduction into Western thought and traditions, students will still acquire the critical skills of reading, writing and discussion. They will be reading most of the same texts and they will gain the same skills. They will just have to take more responsibility for acquiring them.”

Sick envisions outside-of-class study and discussion groups, attendance at lectures and cultural events, which is already common. Last semester, for example, Search classes attended the Rhodes MasterSingers performance of Handel’s Judas Maccabeus and Life students enjoyed the Opera Memphis rendition of Saint-Saëns’ Samson and Dalila.

“I think what is most important is that the faculty affirmed that it is still important for our students to have this multidisciplinary immersion in the humanities,” Sick said. “We should remember that the program has been around for 60 years, and this is certainly not the first time it has changed.”

In fact, he believes the change is a good one.

“We will be doing fewer things more thoroughly,” he said. “Students will do the same amount of work but will experience depth rather than breadth. I think they will feel less like headless chickens.”