Teaching With-out the Curriculum
20 February 2005 (collegiateway.org) — Many universities have valuable programs that promote “writing across the curriculum” or “speaking across the curriculum.” These programs are intended to show students that the writing and speaking skills they learn in one class shouldn’t be thought of as belonging to that class only, but should instead be applied throughout their work in the university.
But does learning only happen within the confines of the curriculum? If it does, then the students are being short-changed. One of the foundations of the residential college idea is that learning should be an around-the-clock experience, and that disciplinary boundaries are contrivances which may sometimes be convenient, but which can just as often stand in the way of integral understanding. The residential component of residential college life contributes to integral understanding because it multiplies the chances of being able to build on serendipitous events.
Residential college life can be thought of as a special program in “teaching with-out the curriculum.” Not in the absence of the curriculum, but rather outside of the curriculum. It can support the joining of history and philosophy, of physics and economics, of geology and psychology, of biology and poetry, all into a seamless whole. It can do this because the members of a collegiate society are rooted in a particular place, they see each other regularly and know each other well, and because each person in a collegiate society can supply a piece of the puzzle of learning: the physicist one thing, the biologist another, the poet another still.
Today is cold and crystal-clear in Vermont, with snow covering the ground and a deep blue sky overhead. On the college grounds this afternoon I heard in the distance a flock of Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum), one of the noisiest and most sociable winter birds of New England. Tracing the sound to its source, I found them in a small ornamental cherry, devouring the last of the winter berries.
A biologist might notice them in isolation. An English major might pass them obliviously. But if the biologist and the English major know each other well, as members of the same collegiate society, their minds might open right there on the college grounds to a tiny gem Robert Francis once wrote:
Four Tao philosophers as Cedar Waxwings
chat on a February berrybush
in sun, and I am one.
Such merriment and such sobriety—
the small wild fruit on the tall stalk—
was this not always my true style?
Above an elegance of snow, beneath
a silk-blue sky, a brotherhood of four
birds. Can you mistake us?
To sun, to feast, and to converse
and all together—for this I have abandoned
all my other lives.