Liberal learning director aims to broaden students’ horizons

At one time or another, you may have wondered: Why do I have to take math if I’m an English major? Why do I have to learn about cave paintings to get my diploma? Just what, exactly, is the point of all of these general education requirements?

But since 1993, the General Education (or, as it is now called, Liberal Learning) Program has had an enthusiastic champion in its director, Robert Anderson.

Anderson joined the College’s faculty as a member of the Sociology Department in 1967, serving as chair from 1973 to 1988.

“I chose to study sociology because it is the broadest way of looking at the world,” he said. “I’m interested in the big picture and am very much an advocate of broad learning.”

Eventually, though, Anderson decided that it was time to move his career in a different direction.

“I realized that sociology is just one way of learning, and it wasn’t enough for me,” he said.

He was given the opportunity to serve on the General Education Advising Council (GEAC), where he realized just how important general education courses can be in a college student’s curriculum.

“An interdisciplinary perspective is an important one,” Anderson said. “I’m going to paraphrase something I heard at a conference once: a college should have two curricula. The first is vertical, which is your major. The second is horizontal, or general education, which provides you with some breadth. They’re equally important. Students need experience in a given field, but that isn’t always enough.”

But what of the arguments that college students should spend as much time as possible focused on their major area of study?

“We need to avoid narrowness,” Anderson said. “Of course, a student needs experience in their major or given field, but that’s not enough. Half of college students change their major, or don’t end up working in their major when they graduate. Why put all your eggs in one basket?”

As the director of the Liberal Learning Program, Anderson has a wide range of responsibilities.

“I oversee the program and make sure that it is working right, but I don’t do it alone,” he said. “I help by advising students, working with many members of the faculty and approving courses and programs.”

Since the College transformed the general education curriculum in 2003, Anderson has seen his workload multiply.

“I spend a lot of time communicating to the campus the importance of liberal learning, because it’s amazing how little they know,” he said. “Since the transformation occurred, I have many more students coming to me because of a lack of clarity.”

These issues, along with general concerns about the direction that students are taking, keep Anderson busy – a look at the schedule on his computer showed that during the first week of the new semester, he was already booked solid.

“I see hundreds and hundreds of students each semester,” he said.

Most of the questions that Anderson ends up fielding concern differences between the old and new major program planners. Luckily, though, he is optimistic that confusion over liberal learning will soon come to an end.

“The transformation really only affected the College’s upper-class students,” he said. “Within the next year or two, all students enrolled in the College will be following the new program planners.”

While Anderson is happy to see any students with questions or concerns, the results are sometimes a bit frustrating.

“Sometimes you’ll get students in here who complain that they don’t want to take a foreign language simply because they have better things to do,” he said. “Or they’ll complain to me, the director of the program, that liberal learning is pointless. Once, I even had a parent call me asking if the College offered ‘conservative learning’ as well.”

But Anderson doesn’t let these small bumps in the road lead to discouragement. In fact, there’s no place else he’d rather be.

“I like what I do here,” he said. “I wouldn’t be here all these millions of years if I didn’t.”