Champlain College in Vermont has been receiving national accolades for its thoughtful curriculum. For many of those unhappy with the vagaries of more famous colleges and universities, Champlain is starting to pop up in parental discussions, right after the question, “Then where would you be willing to send your son or daughter?”
The college combines a decent core curriculum with career-oriented majors and life-skills courses, all of which constantly reminds students that their college is, after all, part of the real world. But there is a problem. Tensions between the school’s official “sustainability” values and its commitment to critical thinking threaten to undermine the quality of Champlain’s undergraduate program.
Champlain’s core is well-considered because of its impressive approach to self, society, the variety of paradigms in the Western tradition, and the development of intellectual, ethical, and rhetorical skills through writing-intensive and discussion-based courses.
In the faculty handbook, Champlain reminds faculty that “Core professors must inspire students’ appreciation of subjects outside their majors and cultivate in students the habits of mind that characterize the successful, well-rounded citizen and professional in today’s global community.” The core requires 11 courses plus a senior-year, “integrated,” “capstone” course, and faculty are advised to work with one another to provide “an integrated learning experience that takes the fullest advantage of the interdisciplinary curricular model.”
That’s all to the good. Unlike many colleges that split the core into dozens of courses that barely count for each subject area, Champlain gives each first-year core course a specific mission. “Concepts of the Self” engages “what it means to be human” through various disciplinary perspectives, and “Concepts of Community” examines “the structures of communities and how do these limit and define us as individuals” through the disciplines of history, philosophy and economics. There’s no escaping these courses.
All students also must take Rhetoric I and II, in which they first learn
to engage with ideas and work through difficult texts by posing meaningful questions and analyzing both what a text says and how it says it. Students learn to use writing for learning, thinking and effectively communicating their opinions and understanding
and then learn
to develop opinions based on critical reading and discussion of interesting and diverse texts into effectively written and researched arguments. Students continue to learn strategies for writing texts that are clear, coherent, comprehensive, creative, concise and correct for a specific audience and purpose.
At the same time, first-year students are taking multiple courses in their intended major. This seems like an intellectual mistake (Champlain calls it “upside-down“). The implication is that the core courses will not really change the path you have set for your life; rethinking self and society is incidental to your career path. The first-year core faculty shoulder the additional burden of reminding students that their values and life-choices can and probably should get shaken up by thinking carefully about what it means to be a person in society, so that students should expect to completely change their minds about their major, their career, and even more important things than these.
This first tension is indicative of deeper tensions in Champlain’s curriculum. The second year of the core is shaky. Instead of receiving a common intellectual experience, students only must take four of the eight offered courses. Because a student can escape so much core content, Champlain receives an “F” from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni in its database of core requirements.
Second-year students can learn about “Democracies,” but “questions about the value and future of capitalism and democracy” due to such “problems” as “globalism, environmental degradation, and terrorism” suggest something less than a neutral academic examination of these topics. Likewise, “Colonialism and the West” takes as given that “the legacies of colonialism continue to shape Western identity today.” The ethics option comes through the lens of “environmental ethics.”
Even so, a student can choose wisely and take the intriguing courses on “Heroines and Heroes,” Western aesthetics, and science in society.
The good news about the third year of Champlain’s core is that students return to a common intellectual experience through Global Studies I and II. The bad news is that the academic credibility of Global Studies I is unclear. The course takes for granted that
Upcoming generations will reap the rewards and pay the costs of our ability to manage technology with foresight and deliberation. This course will take a critical look at the promises and dangers of emerging technologies, and consider how we manage change and distribute its benefits and its burdens globally
But Global Studies II, “Human Rights and Responsibilities,” promises to expose students to an excellent diversity of traditions when it comes to these topics:
Are human rights universal? Should they be? … Students will investigate how a variety of religious, philosophical, and social traditions challenge contemporary efforts to find a global definition of human rights.
And all students must take a section of COR 330, which features a variety of courses about the Islamic World and the Middle East. The set of cultural studies courses changes each semester. This seems a real victory in innovation for the curriculum. Since all third-year students are studying similar material, they can have fascinating conversations with one another about what they are learning, and they can discover new connections.
But I return to the unfortunate curricular tension between the college’s focus on critical thinking and its official campus values, which undermine that focus. Champlain has officially bound itself to a “sustainability” agenda that is supposed to infuse itself into the entire curriculum:
Champlain views sustainability in an inclusive way, encompassing human and ecological health, social justice, secure livelihoods, and a better world for all generations. … … Because sustainability is a holistic and interdependent concept, our application of sustainability on campus and within our institution will demonstrate this and be INFUSED into all that we do.
Once such official values as “social justice” are taken for granted (and left undefined here), what room is there to go back to the beginning and investigate the roots of self and society?
Champlain does not even officially question the definition of “sustainability” that it borrows uncritically from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. Further,
At Champlain College, sustainability is a central value and we strive to infuse it throughout our other core values … Further, we must create a campus where fully engaging in these concepts and practices is a part of life for our whole community.
If I were a Champlain student, I think I wouldn’t believe Champlain’s promises about forming “the habits of mind that characterize the successful, well-rounded citizen.” I would see that the upside-down curriculum and the official sustainability values tell me ahead of time what I am supposed to believe as a “well-rounded citizen” of the world. I would see that Champlain wants me to become well-rounded according to Champlain’s own values and the implicit and explicit assumptions in its courses, while the habits of mind that include critical thinking about those values and assumptions do not seem quite so important. Beware the infusion of mandatory values.