Whither the Whitman College Curriculum?

Faculty Forum
September 30, 2009

Class of 1886 Whitman College Class of 1886

I’ve titled my remarks today “Whither the Whitman College Curriculum?” I would ask that you remain cognizant of the presence of the letter “h” in the term “whither.” The sense of my title would be rather different absent that letter. The term “wither,” absent the “h,” might better be employed if my aim today were to consider the present condition of the first graduating class of Whitman College, the class of 1886. But that, of course, is not my aim. Nor, still more important, is my aim to specify or prescribe what the Whitman curriculum might or should become in the future. Determination of that shape is rightfully the prerogative of the faculty; and I have neither the intention nor the desire to abridge that prerogative. Instead, my aim today is to offer a sort of provocation in the best sense of the term, i.e., to provoke collective discussion about the current shape of the Whitman curriculum as well as the shape it might assume in the future.

But why offer this provocation at this particular moment in time? This summer, as I was preparing to assume the position I now hold, I came across the document that I invited you to read in preparation for this forum. That document is titled “Building on Excellence,” and it is the fruit of the last collective effort on the part of the Whitman faculty to discuss and achieve some measure of consensus about the principal priorities of the academic program. What I had forgotten, but was reminded when I reread that document, is that its full title is: “Building on Excellence: 2005-09.” What, I found myself asking, is the import of those dates? I assume that the presence of those dates implies that this planning document was composed with the expectation that its effective force would expire at midnight on December 31, 2009. And, if that is so, in what condition will we find ourselves on January 1, 2010? In order to ward off wholesale curricular anomie, is it now time for us, once again, to begin to talk about and possibly to chart the future of the Whitman curriculum?

If so, then what role might I play in helping to get that discussion underway? My presentation today is aimed at indicating one possible answer to that question. To do so I ask the following: Historically speaking, how do we explain the fact that the Whitman curriculum assumes the shape it currently does? What might be involved in doing an analysis of the Whitman curriculum since its origin in 1882, and what might that analysis suggest, if anything, about what that curriculum might become in the future? So, here’s a partial answer to this question, one that has three principal moments.

So, moment No. 1: Much American higher education during the latter half of the nineteenth century took place in small colleges rather than universities. More often than not, these colleges were founded by persons who espoused a particular theological doctrine, and, in creating institutions predicated on that doctrine, sought to improve the ethical as well as the intellectual virtues of their charges. Toward that end, by and large, America's liberal arts colleges during this period offered a fairly standard course of instruction. Its content typically emphasized the study of Greek, Latin, mathematics, "natural philosophy," history, and a considerable measure of moral philosophy and theology. Either explicitly or implicitly, each of these fields of inquiry was considered as an element within God’s providential plan for humankind and so as a contributor to the divine glory of that plan. It was this more comprehensive purpose that dictated the form as well as the content of an education in the specifically liberal as opposed to the "ignoble" vocational arts; and, at some colleges, the faculty members who taught the liberal arts bore grand, if not grandiose, titles such as "Professor of Moral and Mental Philosophy, Political Economy, and Polite Literature." To illustrate, I offer you one such faculty — specifically, the Whitman College faculty of 1882.

Faculty 1882 The faculty of Whitman College, 1882

In its early years, Whitman College fit this nineteenth century model reasonably well. The 1882-83 catalog opens by assuring the reader that the College is “not under the control of any presbytery, synod, association, conference, or other ecclesiastical body, or of bishop or State." It then proceeds to note, however, that the college is governed by a Board of Trustees whose members are "bound by an irrepealable article of its constitution to maintain, in conducting the Institution, evangelical principles of Christianity." Turning to curricular matters, and leaving aside the so-called “Normal Course,” which was geared to the education of future public school teachers, the 1882-83 catalog states that each student, at the time of entry, must select one of three "courses." In this context, the term “course” means not an individual or specific course, as we understand the term today, but, rather, a three or four year course of study. To illustrate, here’s a diagram, reproduced from the 1882-83 Whitman College catalog of the so-called “Classical Course.”


Virgil Cicero English Literature
Xenophon Herodotus Homer
Geometry Geometry Algebra
Livy Thucydides Horace
Trigonometry Analytical Geometry Calculus
Physiology Zoology Botany
Rhetoric Greek Drama Tacitus
Mechanics Optics Astronomy
Chemistry Chemistry Geology
Psychology Ethics Political Economy
Quintillian Constitution of the U.S. Evidences of Religion
Greek Testament Didactics Orations

In this catalog, the content of the three courses of the College is described as follows: "The Classical course covers the usual four years of classical study, mathematics, science, English language and literature, history, civics, economics and philosophy. The Scientific is a three year course intended for those who have not the time to take the classical. It is the same as the classical with the omission of Greek, a part of the Latin, and a few other branches. The Literary is the same as the Scientific, except that candidates may, with the consent of the Faculty, substitute Latin, French or German for the higher mathematical studies of the course." As this description indicates, and as would be visually apparent were I to show you the diagrams that correspond to the Scientific and the Literary courses, there was substantial overlap between each of these three "courses." So, for example, all students taking the "Classical" course studied Geometry, Algebra, and Botany; all students taking the "Scientific" course studied Virgil, Caesar, and Cicero; and so forth and so on. Moreover, in the senior year, regardless of the course he or she initially selected, every student was required to take "Ethics," "Evidences of Religion,” and the "Constitution of the United States." Note the implication: When constitutional law was studied, it was not set apart as an independent domain of expertise. Rather, along with Christianity and the moral code derivative upon it, constitutional law stood as one element situated at the apex of the larger synthetic curriculum from which it derived its meaning and purpose.

So, that is the first moment within my breakneck hurtle through the history of the Whitman curriculum. Let me now move to the second moment by asking: What accounts for the disintegration of this vision of higher education, and how is that disintegration reflected in a reorganization of Whitman College's curriculum? In answering the first of these two questions, one may point to any number of causes. Clearly, though, one of most important is the emergence of the modern university system and, more particularly, the invention of graduate programs, beginning with Johns Hopkins in 1876. What this development signals, I would argue, is a larger transformation in the understanding of what counts as knowledge within American culture. As science, whether natural or social, begins to displace the Bible as the authoritative ground of American educational practice, as, for example, what was once named “natural philosophy” becomes the discrete laboratory-based sciences with which we are familiar today, the idea of transmitting wisdom through teaching rooted in faith wanes. What comes to take its place is our now familiar idea that knowledge is something to be accumulated by professionals and conveyed by experts whose authority stems from their disciplined mastery of a specialized epistemic province. This transformation, of course, explains why more and more disciplines during this era came to insist that only peer review can determine what constitutes reliable knowledge (a belief that is, of course, now incorporated within the criteria employed by our Personnel Committee).

As it becomes ever less clear that all knowledge is coherently integrated within the architectonic structure intimated by the 1882-83 curricular diagram, one academic discourse after another disengages itself from that structure. At an ever faster clip, early twentieth century America witnesses a partitioning of knowledge among so many camps of specialists, each seeking to establish its exclusive rights over the field upon which it stakes its claim to existence. The effort to consolidate these discrete fields of inquiry explains why more and more disciplines soon organized separate professional associations devoted to crystallization and promotion of its peculiar intellectual province. To cite but one example, by the turn of the twentieth century, the American Social Science Association, which was initially founded in 1865 to insure the integration of all knowledge regarding human matters, could no longer resist the centrifugal forces generated by this dynamic. Specifically, in 1884, the American Historical Association broke away from the ASSA; the American Economic Association in 1885; the American Psychological Association in 1892; the American Anthropological Association in 1902; the American Political Science Association in 1903; and, finally, in 1905, the remains of the American Social Science Association were reconstituted as the American Sociological Association.

As you would anticipate, these transformations in the business of knowledge did not leave traditional liberal arts colleges unchanged. As more and more post-secondary school instructors received their doctorates from the large research-oriented universities in which independent disciplines were so quickly proliferating, liberal arts colleges ever more looked to this rather different sort of institution for cues regarding the appropriate form and content of knowledge. Not surprisingly, as a result, the structure of educational programs at liberal arts colleges increasingly incorporated and expressed the ethos of those trained to think of themselves as specialists devoted to the accumulation of knowledge in defined areas of expertise.

To illustrate how this process took shape at Whitman, let me begin by reading an eerily prophetic paragraph from the 1892-93 catalog. That paragraph reads as follows:

“Whitman College during the past year has been completely reorganized, and plans are under way to develop it into an ideal American College as rapidly as its resources will permit...The three College courses [Classical, Scientific, Literary] are now made of equal length, and, as nearly as possible, of equal difficulty. This, too, is in accordance with the usage now prevalent in all good colleges. Of necessity they [the three courses] correspond more closely than is desirable. But to have a greater range of scientific and literary studies is impossible till we are provided with a larger faculty. As the college secures endowment, and the various departments are properly separated and in charge of specialists, a wider range of optional and elective studies will be introduced.”

Two years later, in 1894-95, individual academic departments first appear in the Whitman catalog. These include the Departments of Philosophy; Greek; Latin; Mathematics; the Natural Sciences; and, finally, History, Civics and Economics. In this year, however, individual departments are still subordinate in function and status to the three courses in the older sense of the term, i.e., the Literary, the Classical, and the Scientific. The academic departments supply an additional level of administrative hierarchy to the College curriculum, but they do not fundamentally displace the nineteenth century's traditional curriculum.

This order stays essentially unchanged for the next decade or so, although several additional new departments, including English Literature and Oratory; Modern Languages; Physics and Chemistry; Biology and Geology, are carved out and afforded separate acknowledgment in the catalog. In 1904, though, there is a fundamental shift, as the curriculum's division into courses of study is rejected in favor of a system of independent majors. Under this new academic regime, each student must complete what is called "prescribed work," which includes fourteen hours of study in English as well as fourteen hours in Philosophy; twelve hours of a foreign language; eight hours of American Political and Constitutional History as well as eight hours of a lab science; and, bringing up the curricular rear, four hours of Biblical Literature. All of this so-called “prescribed work” must be completed by the end of the sophomore year “so as to leave the last two years free for the major study,” which, at that date, can be completed in any one of the following departments: Philosophy; Classics; Modern Languages; English; Physics; Chemistry; History and Economics; Mathematics and Astronomy; and, finally, Biology and Geology. The triumph of modernity intimated by organization of the curriculum around a system of independent majors is perfected in 1914 when Whitman becomes the first college in the nation to require every undergraduate to complete a comprehensive examination in his or her chosen major field of study.

Now, before I turn to the third and final moment in this rapid-fire genealogy, it is worth noting one additional organizational innovation that emerges in response to collapse of the nineteenth century's curricular synthesis and its replacement by a curriculum structured around separate academic departments and their respective major programs. In 1911, Whitman tempers the centrifugal effects generated by this development by consolidating its various departments within what are called "groups." 

Whitman College 1911 Course Catalog

Group I: Philosophy, History, and Political Science
Department of Philosophy
Department of History
Department of Political Science

Group II: Languages and Literature
Department of Biblical Literature
Department of Greek
Department of Latin
Department of Romance Languages
Department of German
Department of English
  Group III: Mathematics and Science
Department of Mathematics and Astronomy
Department of Physics
Department of Chemistry
Department of Biology
Department of Geology and Mineralogy

Group IV: Engineering

Leaving aside the ill-fated Group IV, “Engineering,” it is not too difficult to see in the first three of these four groups forerunners of the now familiar division of the academic curriculum into the social sciences, the natural sciences, and the humanities. Moreover, looking backward, is it possible that our present divisional structure represents a pale reincarnation of the three "courses" into which the College's curriculum was originally partitioned, i.e., the Classical, the Literary, and the Scientific? And, if that is so, is it possible that categories that once offered students a choice of emphasis within a curriculum unified by shared theological presuppositions have now been reborn as formalistic containers chiefly serving the purposes of administrative convenience?

So, if the closing decades of the nineteenth century serve as the first moment in my hasty history, and if the early decades of the twentieth century represent the second moment, what’s the third? While I am glossing over many significant changes in the Whitman curriculum, I am not persuaded that the character represented by the second moment is challenged in any significant way until the latter decades of the twentieth century. It was then that one begins to see the creation and spread of what were first labeled “interdepartmental courses” in the 1973-74 catalog.

“Interdepartmental Courses”
Whitman College

American Studies
Asian Studies
Classics in Translation
  Environmental Studies
Plural Societies

Over time, these interdepartmental courses, or at least certain of them, morph into our present “interdisciplinary programs,” which are listed in the 2009-10 catalog as follows:

Interdisciplinary Programs
Whitman College

Asian Studies
Environmental Studies
Gender Studies
  Latin American Studies
Race and Ethnic Studies

The history of interdisciplinary programs, at Whitman and elsewhere, is of relatively recent vintage, and I suspect we can all recite the reasons that have led to their expansion in recent decades. What I’d like to do instead of charting their emergence and evolution is to ask what sort of question the growth of such programs poses for the departmentally-based curriculum that emerged in the early twentieth century. One possible answer is provided in a document that was prepared by a group of faculty members at Oberlin College in 2007 titled “The Departmental Paradigm and Its Discontents: Toward a Twenty-First Century College.” The conclusion that report comes to is well summarized in the following paragraph:

For years there seems to have been a growing level of unhappiness with the ways in which Oberlin organizes itself for curricular and administrative purposes…Within the college, departments are the de facto source of collective identity: the structures we have in place encourage departments and programs to defend their turf. In effect, our structures discourage interaction and cooperation across departments… A larger tragedy of the departmental regime is the kind of “departmental nationalism” that constantly bogs down the decision-making process at all levels. Almost everything in our procedures encourages departments to think of themselves as insular units; to place their perceived “own” interests above those of the college as a whole; to ignore the place of their course program in the larger curriculum; and not to think of students’ education beyond the major requirements. Anything that doesn’t directly contribute to “the major” is seen as extra, a sacrifice, a generous concession, "service" — and, in the end, as expendable.

In reading this quotation, to return to my preface, my aim is to provoke, to encourage us to ask certain questions that are awkward but not unimportant. The sort of question I mean to encourage can be indicated by substituting the name “Whitman” for that of “Oberlin” in one of the summary quotations from the latter's “Departmental Paradigm” document. So, here goes: “The problems outlined in what follows connect both to the efficiency of our current structure and to its capacity for enhancing the intellectual experience at Whitman College. What is the most efficient way to organize Whitman’s faculty and curriculum? And how might faculty and curricula be better organized to foster curricular connections and creativity for the betterment both of student learning and faculty careers at Whitman?”

To give some preliminary structure to the question of how best to enhance the intellectual experience at Whitman, let me remind you of the College mission statement, which I think becomes a much more intriguing text if read in light of the curricular history I’ve just offered:

Whitman College is committed to providing an excellent, well-rounded liberal arts and sciences undergraduate education. It is an independent, non-sectarian, residential college. Whitman offers an ideal setting for rigorous learning and scholarship, and encourages creativity, character, and responsibility. Through the study of humanities, arts, and social and natural sciences, Whitman's students develop capacities to analyze, interpret, criticize, communicate, and engage. A concentration on basic disciplines, in combination with a nurturing residential life program that encourages personal and social development, is intended to foster intellectual vitality, confidence, leadership and the flexibility to deal with a changing technological, multicultural world.

Again with an eye to asking how best to enhance the intellectual experience at Whitman, consider the basic ingredients, if you will, of the curriculum that we now ask our students to complete. Those basic ingredients, as I read them, include the following:

Distribution Requirements

Major Programs
Senior Capstone Experience

Interdisciplinary Programs
Global Studies Initiative(?)

(Parenthetically, should the Global Studies Initiative be included here? If so, how and where does it fit into this diagram? It’s not a common course like “Encounters;” but nor is it an established major program; but nor is it an interdisciplinary program. And, if it is none of these things, how might we understand its place in our present curriculum?) 

In any event, I want to close today by asking how we might think of these various ingredients in relation to the story I have just told. Do these ingredients somehow recapitulate and encapsulate this story? If one were to answer that question in the affirmative, here’s one possible, but admittedly overly simple, way to do so:

Recall the first moment in my tale, i.e., that of the synthetic curriculum whose pinnacle is embodied in the so-called classical course. Is it possible that in General Studies 145/46 we hear a faint echo of the late nineteenth century’s belief that all well-educated persons must be introduced to a common body of knowledge? Today, however, the question of just what that knowledge is, substantively speaking, is very much up for grabs, as we have moved from “Antiquity and Modernity” to “Encounters.”  Relatedly, in our distribution requirements, do we hear an echo of the nineteenth belief that all students must be exposed to what Whitman once called “prescribed work,” those diverse ways of knowing with which all students must have some familiarity in order to qualify as liberally educated? 

Now consider the second moment in my tale. In moving to our established major programs, quite clearly, it seems to me, we are bumping up against the legacy of the early and mid twentieth centuries, the era when knowledge claims become more or less segmented into so many relatively autonomous provinces, each with its own specialized epistemic practices as well as the professional associations created in order to safeguard and advance those practices.

Finally, turning to the third moment in my tale, as we move from what are first dubbed “interdepartmental courses” and later come to be organized as interdisciplinary programs, it seems clear that we are witnessing the late twentieth century’s growing dissatisfaction with forms of knowledge that appear unable to acknowledge the interconnection among the things of the world, things which, sometimes to our frustration, do not parcel themselves out neatly in accordance with the imperatives of our more familiar disciplinary categories.

So, when you look at this list of the principal ingredients of the present Whitman curriculum in light of the tale I’ve just told, what do you see? Do you see a coherent synthesis that draws together the key moments of the history of liberal arts education in America? Or do you see a mish-mash, a contingent product of historical accident that reflects little more than the emerging configuration of power relations within the academy, as those relations have changed over time? My dilemma is that, much like the familiar duck/rabbit gestalt, I can see the first and then the second reading as a result of a very slight shift in intellectual perspective. And so, returning to where I began, as befits a proper student of Socrates, but this time with a rather different illustration, I put my initial question to you:


Duck or rabbit?