"Imagining Teaching and Learning at a Jesuit, Liberal Arts College in the 21st Century"
September 13, 2012
Remarks by Ericka Fisher, associate professor of education
As an alumna and now a faculty member I have had the opportunity to see the college grow and transform over the past 20 years. The inauguration of Father Philip Boroughs brings yet another opportunity for dynamic change to the college. As I reflected on this speech I thought of this institution’s past, present, and future as well as the future of Jesuit liberal arts in higher education. My doctoral degree is in Social Justice Education with a specialization in counseling and marginalized populations in school settings. My perspective is grounded in both my education here at Holy Cross as well as my role as an Education faculty member.
This past spring I had the opportunity to participate in the Ignatian Pilgrimage. The pilgrimage was designed to give faculty a better understanding of the Jesuit tradition and follow Saint Ignatius journey in both Spain and Italy. It was during this time that I began to think about my remarks for today. Leading up to the pilgrimage we had the opportunity to explore readings related to the Jesuits and Saint Ignatius. Through the readings and the lived experience several reoccurring themes emerged-the concepts of social justice, imagination, and adaptability. There is a strong connection between these themes and to the future of Jesuit liberal arts education.
Within the field of Education as a whole, the talking point of the past several years has been preparing students to possess 21st century skills. Simply meaning what skills do our current students need to acquire during their educational experience to be productive citizens in a global society. While often viewed as empty rhetoric the three primary skills mentioned are cognitive, interpersonal, as well as intrapersonal abilities. Thus, students must have a solid academic foundation and be able to manipulate information, be capable of communicating effectively both in written and oral form, work well with others, and have a sense of resiliency and adaptability. The fundamental underlying principle of 21st century skills is the concept of transfer. Transfer is the ability to apply pre-existing knowledge to new situations. Policy makers and k-12 educators are in a quandary as to how to effectively teach these skills to students. I would argue that the model for effectively teaching these 21st century skills rests in a liberal arts education. The skills outlined are skills The College of the Holy Cross has been instilling and reinforcing in undergraduates since 1843.
It is a delicate balance: cultivating students 21st century skills as well as ensuring that the mission of Jesuit education endures for a lifetime not simply for the 4 years students are on campus. We as faculty have the opportunity to act as guides. In the Jesuit tradition we have the ability to model fearless, yet thoughtful behavior through our teaching and curricular choices. Our choices should be meaningful and connect to the skill set necessary to succeed in our constantly shifting environment.
To stay relevant we must carefully analyze how we live the mission of men and women with and for others. An education without justice, without meaning, and ethics will create citizens incapable of functioning in our ever changing world. However, the question that we must ask ourselves is what does social justice look like in a meaningful way? This institution, like many, has adopted a strong focus on community based learning. It is a trend that holds value yet also holds inherent dangers if not carefully implemented. I will offer the case of the Education department in which last year our students participated in nearly 6,000 hours of community based learning and field based experiences. From student teaching to therapeutic interventions in schools, the hours our students spend in the community hold value for both partners, however, we continuously reflect on the academic rigor and curricular connections that these placements bring as well as the skills students acquire to allow for that future transfer. This reflection and constant adaptation is necessary in order for students to engage with the meaning behind the hours they are accumulating and to carry the commitment of social justice beyond the gates of the College of the Holy Cross. To have students perform countless hours of community based learning without a curricular tie places Holy Cross on the precipice of becoming simply a social service agency. Reflection, adaptation, and restraint are also necessary as we send students into the community often to work with our most vulnerable populations. The potential to do more harm than good without proper supervision and curricular background is a danger that must be continuously monitored. We as an institution must hold true to both the educational and social justice mission of our college.
The tradition of adaptability found within the Jesuit community will be the cornerstone to the success of Jesuit liberal arts education. As the k-12 American education system struggles to adequately prepare students for higher education and new populations of students are entering college for the first time-our ability to adapt to the increased academic, personal, and social needs of our students will be paramount. The future of Jesuit liberal arts rests on maintaining what we do well-providing a rigorous and solid academic foundation, small classes that allow for growth in communication skills and critical engagement in curricular material, and strong interpersonal relationships between faculty and students. Continuing to provide students in every discipline with key concepts, procedures and methodologies that can be transferred to other disciplines and future careers will be instrumental to their future success as well as the success of the Jesuit liberal arts. Much of my current work focuses on the importance of interpersonal relationships in education and the impact on achievement. On the k-12 level the push toward testing has removed the ability to nurture relationships within the classroom as well as critical thinking skills. In higher education the push toward technology and online courses has severely reduced the interpersonal aspect of education. The relationships students form with faculty are key to the commitment students have with an institution and to their academic success. For institutions that rely heavily on alumni giving, these relationships equate to the longevity of the institution. These relationships are under stress due to the frenetic pace both faculty and students alike are maintaining. Likewise, the relationships amongst faculty are equally important to the health and survival of small liberal arts institutions. As an alumna, it is apparent to me that both relationships have changed, and I would suggest suffered, significantly over the past 20 years. The pilgrimage allows small numbers of faculty to build community, however I would urge the administration to continue to explore effective mechanisms that allow faculty time and space to form much needed bonds with students and colleagues.
We must balance curricular decisions and the maintenance of interpersonal relationships with a concerted effort to meet the needs of our changing student population, as to ignore the shift in societal demographics will certainly equate to failure and stands in contradiction to the Jesuit liberal arts tradition. This year we celebrate forty years of women on the hill. A historic change in this institution, one that presented challenges, yet altered the institution for the better. The current demographic shifts should be embraced as well. The diversity of thought that students of different genders, ethnicities, socioeconomic status, and sexual orientation bring to the classroom enrich the educational experience for all. Unfortunately, the trend in under-preparedness of many students will continue and colleges must adapt by providing more resources to incoming students that continue through the first two years. Summer orientation and preparation programs designed for first generation and ALANA students should be offered to all students as it has become abundantly clear that students from all backgrounds have the potential of arriving at the gates underprepared.
This year marks the first year that incoming freshman will be unable to pre-declare a major. This decision allows students to truly explore the curriculum and experience the liberal arts. The College of the Holy Cross displayed thoughtful fearlessness by delaying the declaration of majors for incoming first year students. It is certainly not easy to fly in the face of trends and the pre-professionalization of seventeen year olds. However, US Department of Labor statistics suggest students may change employment upwards of a dozen times during their lifetime. Thus the commitment to providing a true liberal arts education - a broad and deep academic foundation that allows for transfer of valuable knowledge and skills is a commitment from which the liberal arts should not waiver. It is on this note that I will conclude my remarks. I would also like to thank The College of the Holy Cross for allowing me to share my thoughts on Jesuit liberal arts education in the 21st century and join my colleagues in welcoming Father Boroughs to campus.