Integrative Learning and the Gift of New Media: General Education for the 21st Century

Necker Cube
How to move from “general education” to “generalizable education.” That problem was the thread running through my keynote presentation at Benedictine University last March. Dr. Wilson Chen and the Benedictine General Education Task Force kindly invited me to speak to the way information and communication technologies could inform a revised general education curriculum–and, by implication, speak to what endures, what changes, and can be radically improved in higher education as a result of this revolution.

My answers came obliquely, as they typically do. (They come that way to me, so it’s only honest and fair to express them that way as well. At least, that’s what I tell myself.) In this case, I was obsessed with the idea of changing “general education” to “generalizable education.” Instead of what Tim Clydesdale calls the “liberal arts hazing” that first-year students “endure” (see his book The First Year Out for this chilling description) as they bounce from intro survey to intro survey, getting their general education like shots at a clinic, why don’t we explore the richly integrative possibilities of a truly generalizable education, an experience that stresses the kind of learning that stimulates persistent cross-domain thinking and imagining. Why not build a “general education” out of immersive, compelling experiences of analogy-making? My main inspiration was a book by Douglas Hofstadter called Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies. (My thanks to Jon Udell for turning me on to this book–it’s his favorite Hofstadter, and I can well understand why.) The book is entirely too rich for any summary to do it justice, but suffice it to say that Hofstadter takes Polya’s How To Solve It to a meta-meta level, in which disciplined cognitive procedures thoroughly informed by embodied, thick-context experience and observation leads to a certain “reframing” ability, what Hofstadter describes as a “Necker Cube” operation in which the cube can face out or in, depending on how one flips one’s perspective. To be able to perform such cognitive operations, not in a random way, but in a way guided by reason *and* intuition is, it seems to me, what we mean when we talk about “critical thinking”–and more. My thoughts are obviously indebted to Michael Wesch’s idea of moving from “knowledgeable” to “knowledge-able,” though I hope the particular case of general education–in which the idea of becoming truly knowledgeable is a non-starter–explores another angle of his complex argument. The idea of generalizability, as it came to me from Hofstadter, is also important, I think, for the idea of general education as integrative. And of course ICT is for me the meta-platform that, properly framed and built, is almost pure integrative potential. One of the Benedictine U folks asked me if my ideas suggested that majors should come in the first two years of one’s college career, with general education of the kind I was advocating becoming a capstone experience, not an introductory experience. I thought that was a brilliant idea, and I still do. What a breathtakingly risky undertaking that would be, to turn the curriculum on its head! Yet how rewarding to follow concentrated studies in a particular discipline with an increasingly integrative set of generalizable courses.

These are not particular cogent or illuminating remarks, I fear. I hope the talk itself is more lucid. The recording isn’t pristine, and the ideas are as always a work in progress–but hopefully the results will spark some thoughts in other folks, and lead us all together to something more than any of us could achieve on our own. Keep in touch, and let me know. My thanks to all the good folks at Benedictine for a truly wonderful, inspiring visit. I couldn’t have asked for better hosts, or more dedicated colleagues.

Oh yes: here are the slides as well.


3 thoughts on “Integrative Learning and the Gift of New Media: General Education for the 21st Century

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  2. Gardner: I’m not a fan particularly of the inverted pyramid scheme, putting discipline specific courses first and following them up with more inter-disciplinary ‘gen ed’ explorations later. I’m perhaps more mainstream (… who’s writing this?… had to do a double take after I wrote that!) I am an advocate of the cornerstone, disciplinary, capstone triumvirate. It hasn’t gotten as much play as it deserves because it’s really hard to implement and most importantly,, really stretches the instructor/mentor i ways that are challenging.

    This scheme begins with courses that are entirely too ambitions (purposefully) and which insert the learner in a context for which they are largely unprepared. My personal experience with this is limited, which may explain why I remain a fan of it and not burned out from it. Nevertheless, the idea is to insert the learner into a ‘big problem’ space – one that matters – that requires multiple disciplinary tools to address. My experience is with a course in “nano-scale engineering” for first year/first semester students. They largely didn’t have the math yet, nor certainly the material science and thermodynamics, etc. Rather they had a problem – building a fluid chamber that would increase the interaction among viruses and cell surfaces to better study the ways HIV inhibiting drugs worked on viruses as they attacked cell membranes. (The background is in the toxic nature of HIV drugs to the cells you want to protect while still wanting their impact felt on the HIV virus).

    The remarkable thing was how the kids threw themselves into the problem. They knew it was important. They knew that there were things about the design of the Y-shaped chamber they had to build that involved hydrodynamics, fluid flow and the like though the didn’t yet know the maths governing the environment. They knew something about molecular and cell biology but not enough to ‘know’ what they should be doing. Yet, they came to see how the math helped the see the problem; how the biology viral/membrane interactions were influenced by the biochemistry of cell border, and how the sum of all this either prolonged a life or not.

    In the coming years they will get down and dirty with the biology, chemistry, mathematics, and who knows what else, that represent underlying disciplines important to how one goes about investigating problems like this. This is the part where disciplinary focus builds and gives them deep grounding in instrumental skills, foundational concepts and the related topics that distinguish disciplinarians.

    As they culminate their undergraduate years they’d get a capstone opportunity (or several of them) that once again presents as Woodie Flowers ( was found of saying about 2.007, a problem too big, to solve in a time too short, with a budget too small, that was too complicated. And let them have at it. The results can be extraordinary.

    The problem element of this tripartite set is the first one because young learners don’t know what not to ask, so they ask about everything. Therein lies the challenge and problem for many faculty (academic staff). You can’t BS your way past these kinds of questions. More often then not you have to acknowledge that you don’t really know, either, and find out together. This is demanding, time consuming and requires a really carefully thought out project plan else things can run off the rails really fast.

    But when it works it’s wonder to behold and makes the difference between going to school and being a young scholar palpable.


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