Action Project: Creating a common academic language

“The modern university doesn’t believe in a curriculum,” University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Richard Avramenko insists.

Avramenko is one of three permanent faculty members with the Integrated Liberal Studies program in the College of Letters and Science. He said the ILS program helps provide a more cohesive coursework for students struggling to synthesize the knowledge between their general education requirements and areas of study.

Formerly known as the two-year Experimental College, founded by educator Alexander Meiklejohn in 1927, the program presents itself on its website as a “college within a college” that fosters an “integrated understanding of the great themes of human inquiry and expression” through its interdisciplinary courses and certificate program—a “more cohesive alternative” to the traditional approach of earning a degree.

People begin to learn when they can relate existing knowledge to new understandings and apply it to their own experiences, according to Avramenko.

“It’s about creating a common language for all students,” Avramenko said.

He gives the example of how land is understood in different fields of study, referring to the legal ownership of property, the sentimental relationship to it or the physical composition of its soil. Understanding the common ground between these interpretations can help students and experts in these fields see the implications of their knowledge.

Adam Nelson, professor of Educational Policy Studies and History at UW-Madison has closely studied Meiklejohn’s legacy and the development of the ILS program.

The program historically struggled with chronic under-enrollment and a lack of interest by students and university administration. Nelson said a large research university such as UW-Madison naturally resists the idea of integrated learning in its focus on specialized knowledge.

“Students are often told to get a degree to get a job,” he said. Nelson added although that is not necessarily bad, it is also not the correct approach to critical learning.

“That’s not the whole process of getting an education,” he said. “If you want to be a leader, it might not even be half.”

Nelson explained the creativity, adaptability and passion required to be an effective leader are characteristics of people who have received a liberal education. These students, he said, are more equipped to draw original conclusions from existing ideas because they “have a sense of the arc of history and their place in it, and see the past in terms of the present.”

According to Avramenko, choosing between a liberal or pre-professional approach results in an insufficient education. Accompanied by a regular degree, he said a person with an integrated learning experience can “fully bring to bear [their] knowledge” and ask the ethical questions about its applications.

Students at UW-Madison can obtain that experience by satisfying breadth requirements in ILS courses, which are cross-listed with other departments, and through the 18-credit ILS certificate in the College of Letters and Science.

Nelson admits liberally minded educators have a tendency to push self-serving agendas, which is not always a productive method.

“The tendency is to say every student should get this experience,” Nelson said. Yet, he said he recognizes that students ultimately choose to invest in higher education to succeed professionally, which in turn benefits the university’s ability to fare well under political scrutiny.

“I try to remind people that a truly rigorous integrated education has never been mass education,” Nelson said.

Fortunately for ILS, Nelson said, administrators recognized these tensions in the past and were able to prioritize a fulfilling undergraduate education while the university consistently ranked highly in specialized fields of study. He commends Chancellor Rebecca Blank for her pledge to continue this co-existence.

However, recent discussions over the budget model and physical structure of UW-Madison academic departments leave the small-but-independent ILS program with an unsure future.

“It’s uncertain what ILS will look like in a year,” Avramenko said. He said he does not expect its complete abolition, but predicts the program may soon be forced to join a larger department to survive.

Nelson insists the current state of the program mimics the transition from the Experimental College to the Integrated Liberal Studies program in 1948, and is hopeful that—in the event it may have to assimilate with a department—it will remain true to providing a cohesive, interdisciplinary educational supplement.

In an “age of fracture,” according to Nelson, where competition between ideas is emphasized over collaboration, the saving grace of the ILS program will ultimately be in its “attempts to seek the good.”

Rather than cynicism or apathy in the face of complexity, Nelson said a proper integrated education emphasizes “hope, community and cautious optimism” along with the “spirit of mind” to rise above problems, synthesize ideas and rally people to enact real change.

“The modern world is too complex for anyone to understand, but we can’t just throw up our hands,” Nelson said. “We need students who think about a future not in pieces … if you don’t have people willing to take the risk of synthesis, all you get is more fracture.”

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