Volume 17 • Issue 1
Southwestern @ Georgetown
Cliff Miller engages his Paideia® Professor, Sherry Adrian.
Photo: R. Bryant Hill

Paideia®: Changing the Course of Liberal Arts Education

— R. Bryant Hill
Southwestern University’s Paideia® Program is now in its third year and, next spring, will graduate its first class of Paideia® Scholars. Almost 20 percent of the students at the University are a part of this innovative academic endeavor. Yet, while nearly everyone on campus and the majority of those in the larger Southwestern community have heard of Paideia®, many remain unclear regarding exactly what it is or why it came into being. To be honest, many still have trouble pronouncing it.

Paideia (pie-DAY-uh) comes from the Greek word paidos, which means the upbringing of a child. In ancient Greece, it connoted the sum total of educational experience required to train and prepare a young person to be a Greek citizen. At the time, there was little that was of greater social import. Citizenship accorded a certain degree of respect and honor to an individual as well as a host of social and political responsibilities to Greece and its people.

Little wonder, then, that a term of such gravitas would be applied to a program meant to transform liberal arts education in the 21st century. The goals and purpose of the Paideia® Program draw deeply from the educational history and import of paideia with the hope of building an even richer educational future for the students of Southwestern and, someday, all students of the liberal arts.

Early Thoughts

Southwestern’s Paideia® Program originated through the process of forming the University’s 2010 Strategic Plan. According to Jim Hunt, provost and dean of the faculty, “As part of the development of the Strategic Plan, faculty and staff were encouraged to develop ‘bold proposals’ for possible inclusion in the plan.” Discussion of the program with University faculty came to focus upon the issue of student preparedness and resulted in the proposal of a program designed to ensure that Southwestern students actively engage their educational experience.

Once adopted as part of the Strategic Plan, it became known as the Named Fellows Portfolio Program and called for participating students to “earn distinction in areas such as languages, international/cultural experience, collaborative learning, service, leadership, internships, the arts, athletics and entrepreneurship.”

These areas of distinction mark traditional avenues of pursuit within liberal arts education and are not what set this program apart from similar programs at other universities. Rather, Hunt notes, it was making intentionality the central tenet of this proposal that made it unique. “What was new was requiring that students participate in these activities in an intentional way, and requiring students to reflect on the activities and how the activities connected to their other educational experiences,” he says. “In some ways, Southwestern was in the process of developing a new curricular concept—a concept that could be considered ‘meta-curricular.’”

By “meta-curricular,” Hunt means that the students who participate in this program must consciously take stock of their progress and examine their educational process from a different vantage point—one that allows them to reflect upon the interrelatedness of the knowledge and experiences they acquire. Typically, students encounter, consider and digest knowledge and experience in discreet packets. In contrast, the program envisioned by Hunt and other faculty members asked students to think intentionally about the knowledge they gain in the classroom and to consider how it connects to real-world events, to other educational experiences and to their own lives. As a result of this very intentional process of reflection and connection, a student in this program would be more likely, for example, to recognize and explore the perceived relationship between the shift from an industrial to a service economy as explained by his or her macroeconomics professor and the fall to homelessness of an unemployed textile worker as detailed by the same student’s sociology professor.

The student also might draw connections between these educational experiences and his or her personal experience through a service-learning or leadership opportunity, thereby reinforcing the learning process via an opportunity for the practical application of the knowledge.

An Opportunity Presents Itself

In 2001, The Priddy Charitable Trust in Wichita Falls, Texas, sought proposals from 19 colleges and universities for original programs that would “revitalize the liberal arts” in the United States. Southwestern submitted the Named Fellows Portfolio Program, which, ultimately, emerged as a finalist for consideration. Hunt was given the task of fine-tuning the program with the input of faculty and other campus colleagues for a final presentation to the Trust.

While preparing, Hunt began to feel that too much emphasis was being put on the portfolio element of the proposal since it was not what he envisioned defining the program. He thought the proposal and program needed greater focus on the intentionality of the experience and the meta-curricular nature of the program as these elements were more indicative of what the faculty saw as its true value. He says, “It was this realization that caused me to explore the use of the word ‘paideia’ to describe what we were trying to accomplish.”

Certainly, most colleges and universities try, in some way, to offer students a paideia-like experience. Hunt notes, “They all have a set of courses and experiences that define the college’s or university’s vision of what a person, educated for the citizenry, should know and/or be able to do. Unfortunately, these courses and experiences rarely are framed in such a way to provide the kind of intentionality that the term paideia implies.”

The strong intentionality of the new program being proposed by Southwestern set it apart from such efforts and led to its designation as the Paideia® Program.

Southwestern learned of the fate of its proposal to the Priddy Trust in the fall of 2002. The basic elements of the proposal were funded—with money for the new faculty required to allow senior professors to become Paideia® Professors, the establishment of an associate provost position to oversee the program, stipends for students to cover Paideia®-related expenses and a challenge grant toward the construction of the planned Center for Lifelong Learning, which would house Paideia® and other student services. It was now time to turn the vision into reality.

Building Our Paideia®

With continuing input from Paideia® Professors and Paideia® Scholars alike, the Paideia® Program has evolved significantly during the three years since its inception. However, the evolution has been more about the mechanics and methodology of the program and less about its driving goals and fundamental tenets. The mission has remained the same. Paideia® Professor Sherry Adrian says, “We wanted students to experience a community of learners that went beyond the bounds of majors and classrooms. We wanted students to engage in reflective practices that help them explore connections across disciplines, to make connections among their many courses of study with life outside the classroom.”

The goal remains, according to the Paideia® handbook, to engage Paideia® Scholars “in learning by building a culture of connections and reflections, and by integrating in-class and out-of-class academic and non-academic activities.” Paideia® “promotes connections between academics, intercultural experiences, leadership, service-learning and collaborative research/creative works.” These are the five strands every Paideia® Scholar is tasked with weaving together via experiences within each strand, discussion and interaction with their Paideia® Professor and cohort at seminar meetings, and through “frequent one-on-one meetings with Paideia® Professors.”

Significantly, Paideia® is a student-guided experience. It is up to each Paideia® Scholar to explore, with the guidance of his or her Paideia® Professor, his or her own course through the three years of the program. This encourages students to take greater ownership of their own educational experience, which, research indicates, makes them more engaged learners. It is also, perhaps, why even those within Paideia® often have a difficult time explaining what it is. Paideia® Scholar Candace Stockton notes, “I find myself saying more and more often that Paideia® is what the student wants to make of it. For me, especially in the past several weeks, Paideia® has become an outlet, of sorts, for my creative energy. When I meet with my group, we discuss possibilities for service projects and ways to improve the campus and surrounding communities. We also explore our own lives, current events and our often-differing viewpoints. Being with the smaller group has enabled me to take charge where I might otherwise have left leadership to another person.”

This freedom to challenge themselves and direct their learning is, for many, one of the most beloved elements of the program. Ansa Copeland, also a Paideia® Scholar, says, “I have thrived in the openness of the program. Each group is different and ours is very internally motivated. The students lead every session, giving us each a chance to practice leadership and innovation.”

Paideia® cohorts are comprised of students from a range of academic disciplines and majors, exposing each student to perspectives and knowledge outside his or her own field of study. Without Paideia®, Copeland notes, “My Southwestern experience would still be great, but I think I would have had more difficulty pursuing some interests, such as my current research project [a long-term philanthropic endeavor in Kenya] … The Paideia® Program has been a doorway into other areas of the University I otherwise would have had more difficulty accessing.”

Paideia® Professor Suzanne Buchele also cites the significance of the relationships developed in Paideia®. “The most important parts of the program that have evolved in the first three years are the relationships and the connections. Since the seminar groups stay together for three years in the program, wonderful, close relationships are formed both among the students in the cohort, and between the professors and the students. As the professor, it is wonderful for me to get to know these students so well, and learn from them as we all learn together,” she says.

Why Paideia®?

The pedagogical instincts behind Paideia® are strongly supported by the work of many education researchers, including Richard Light.

Light, professor in the graduate school of education and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and his colleagues, interviewed more than 1,600 senior undergraduate students at Harvard to discern what the students believed helped them get the most out of their educational experience. The results of this extensive research were published in Making the Most of College: Students Speak Their Minds (2001). According to Light, “When asked to rate courses they take, students often give the most rigorous and demanding classes their highest ratings. Yet from the interviews, a fascinating observation emerges about certain faculty members who had an especially powerful influence on their thinking and on their lives. The faculty members who had an especially big impact are those who helped students make connections between a serious curriculum, on the one hand, and the students’ personal lives, values and experiences, on the other.” Students were most impacted by the connection of knowledge to experience that helped them actualize learning beyond the examples offered in a textbook or tome of required reading.

Light’s work also emphasizes the importance undergraduates placed on being able to think nimbly, and with some depth, across disciplines. “Many seniors single out interdisciplinary classes as the courses that meant the most to them. As a corollary, they cite faculty members who, while expert in their own fields, are able to put their fields in a broader perspective,” Light explains. “Students find this important. They believe the real world, and the way people think in the real world, does not divide neatly into categories called history, chemistry, literature, psychology and politics.” When asked what they want in place of the typical departmental structure, Light finds students invariably ask for “more cross-cutting experiences” and to make it easier for them to “get the big picture.”

More broadly, Paideia® Professor Rebecca Sheller says, “Many data in the area of education indicate that engagement in major activities such as service, leadership, intercultural activities and collaborative/creative works is often a life-changing, transformative experience for a college student.”

Light himself visited Southwestern in the fall of 2004. While on campus, he met with Paideia® Professors and Paideia® Scholars and presented a lecture to the University community highlighting his research on educational outcomes for college students. At the end of his visit, he provided some exciting and unexpected feedback on Southwestern’s Paideia® Program. Light said, “I’m stunned, and I’d even honestly say, blown away, by how special the Paideia® Program is. It provides those very experiences that 15 years of research on my campus and a number of other campuses has told us students most value in a college education. … I have visited more than 100 campuses in America in the past 10 or so years, and I cannot think of a single campus that has anything like the Paideia® Program. It really is unique.”

For more information on the Paideia® Program, including a feature story on Ansa Copeland’s service-learning project, visit the Paideia® Web site at www.southwestern.edu/paideia.