The Heart of a Liberal Arts Education

Faculty member lecturing in a science classroom
Mike Lovett

This semester, the university unveils the Brandeis Core, a re-imagined and updated General Education curriculum for all students who enter in fall 2019 or later. Developed by a faculty task force over several years, the Core reflects the university’s philosophy of what constitutes an excellent liberal arts curriculum in the 21st century.

Digital literacy, health and wellness, oral presentation, and global engagement are Core components, along with more traditional requirements like writing, argumentation and quantitative reasoning. In addition, students must still fulfill distribution requirements in all four divisions of the School of Arts and Sciences — creative arts, humanities, social sciences and science.

The Core replaces Gen Ed requirements last revised by the university more than a decade ago, and reflects the impact of broad social, cultural, technological and environmental changes on higher education. It stresses life skills in such areas as financial literacy as well as proficiency in research.

Entering students participate in the Brandeis First-Year Experience, which allows them to build writing skills and model civil discourse.

In a departure from typical Gen Ed requirements, the Core explicitly sets out to help students develop the resilience and flexibility they need to succeed in professional and civic life.

Brandeis’ bedrock values of social justice, diversity and inclusion are also woven into the curriculum’s fabric, through explorations of gender, race, ethnicity, climate justice and inequity. First-year students engage in Critical Conversations, a series of faculty-led and -moderated conversations about a single topic. This year’s Critical Conversations topic is “truth.”

Joel Christensen ’01, MA’01, associate professor and chair of classical studies, has helped implement the First-Year Experience and chairs the committee on Critical Conversations. He shares his thoughts about the Core:

How does the Core differ from the earlier General Education requirements?

The Core represents evolutionary change. It is a realignment with our core values. It prepares students for academic, professional and personal success in the digital age. Although the number of required credits hasn’t changed, every major has evolved to allow the integration of the Core curriculum. The Core clarifies what students are getting at Brandeis: a liberal arts education that endows them with transferable skills.

Why revamp the Gen Ed requirements now?

The old Gen Ed curriculum, which was last revised in 2008, didn’t do a great job of reflecting what is distinctive about a Brandeis education. Because today’s students are savvy higher-ed consumers, we sought to articulate what makes a Brandeis education unique and valuable. The Core curriculum reflects who we think we are in the world and aligns our educational process with our values.

How have students changed since Gen Ed was last revised?

Students are different in several ways. The average student now asks, “How am I going to use what I learn at Brandeis in the workplace and the world?” Our students come to college over-programmed and over-burdened with activities. The typical undergraduate is more accomplished on paper than in my day but has had less time to experiment and wonder, and encounter new people, things and topics.

How does the Core address these changes?

The Core meets students where they are. It gives students a liberal arts education with transferable skills for the workplace and life — in communication, writing, research, digital literacy, quantitative reasoning, and health and wellness.

The new curriculum preserves freedom — we have very few requirements compared to other institutions — and focuses on exploration. For example, students are comfortable using technology but typically not comfortable innovating within a technology. They’re used to writing but not long-form writing. They have broader but shallower knowledge of the world, and we want to help them deepen it. They are more conscious of social justice but often lack a historical perspective to balance their currency. The Core was developed with these strengths and weaknesses in mind.

Which components are particularly distinctive?

A big problem plaguing our culture is that people aren’t able to judge the quality of digital informational sources. So we added competency in informational literacy embedded within the pursuit of discipline-specific digital skills.

We also added a foundational literacy in writing, which has changed a lot over the past 20 years. If you’re a biology and philosophy major, you will learn how to write in each major. There will still be research papers, but students will also write opinion papers and papers that aggregate information. The focus is on giving students the skills to write intentionally.

The foundational oral-communication requirement, which is also new, helps students make different kinds of presentations, including for job interviews. Many students express anxiety about speaking in public, and have little experience in designing and delivering effective presentations of their research, work or arguments. Even students who have done oral presentations often underestimate how different presenting work remotely or online can be. The new oral-communication requirement recognizes this, and provides students with instructions and practice.

Finally, we’ve also revised the physical education requirement. Brandeis had a three-part phys ed requirement that very few schools had, and people complained about it for years. Now we offer options in health, wellness and life skills. Being healthy is about lifestyle, not just exercise. So there are modules on mind/life balance, eating well, financial health and planning for the future.

What is the goal of Critical Conversations?

As part of the First-Year Experience, students are required to attend at least one of the five Critical Conversations scheduled over the academic year. Then they will reflect on a Critical Conversation in their required first-year writing seminar and complete an in-class assignment, which may involve working with their peers on projects or presentations.

The goal is for students to see faculty engage in oral debate and conversation, and then integrate the debate model throughout their academic career — and adapt it into their life. I’m always thinking about the long game: How will students’ lives and perspectives be transformed over time? What seeds are we planting?