The Case for General Education

November 8, 2012 · by Andrea S. Rutledge

Accrediting Board study shows that architecture students benefit from liberal arts studies on the job and in higher learning.

Andrea S. RutledgeIn 2013, the National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB) will undertake the next review of The Conditions for Accreditation. As part of the preparation, the NAAB commissioned a study of accredited architectural education in order to set a baseline for analyzing and synthesizing the positions and recommendations expected to come from other organizations in architecture and related professional groups.

The study was designed to identify the educational needs of architecture students, to test the utility of the NAAB’s conditions on infrastructure (e.g., financial, human, physical, and information resources) and to probe whether the existing commitment to and requirement for general studies remains valid.

Eighty-eight percent of respondents agreed that architecture students benefit from general or liberal arts studies (NAAB Study of Accredited Architectural Education, 2012). When asked what skills and knowledge were developed in liberal arts education (also referred to as general education or liberal education), respondents noted the following benefits:

The respondents are not alone in this belief. Others outside the profession have spent a great deal of time and effort in the last 10 years considering the role and purpose of liberal learning in 21st century higher education. Here are a few:

In her February 2009 TED Talk, Liz Coleman, president of Bennington College, said to the audience in Long Beach, Calif., that “there is no such thing as a viable democracy made up of experts, zealots, politicians and spectators.” Coleman was expressing her dismay that as colleges and universities encouraged students to learn “more and more about less and less,” the “expert had dethroned the educated generalist to become the sole model of intellectual accomplishment.” In Coleman’s eye, the elevation of increasingly specific technical expertise over critical thinking and social responsibility had placed “civic-mindedness outside the realm of serious thinking and adult purposes.”

In their 2007 report, College Learning for the New Global Century, The Association of American Colleges and Universities’ (AAC&U) National Leadership Council for their Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative noted that as post-secondary learning becomes more important for individual success, the policy arena has turned to matters of access, costs and student success. All of these are, according to AAC&U, generally measured by enrollment, persistence (retention) and degree attainment. In other words, the pressure today is to produce graduates who finish in four years’ time with a skill set that makes them immediately employable or prepared for advanced study.

The skills identified by the respondents to the NAAB study as being the outcomes of general or liberal education are aligned with those identified by AAC&U/LEAP and by Coleman:

AAC&U/LEAP

Coleman

Based on the results of the NAAB study and the growing body of literature supporting the role of liberal learning, let us agree that further and deeper learning of these subjects or skills is crucial to the success of emerging professionals in the 21st century. The question then emerges of when and where should architecture students learn these subjects and skills: in architecture school or in their preparatory or preprofessional education? Who would be responsible for ensuring their competence?

The AAC&U/LEAP report argues that these learning outcomes should be emphasized across every field of college study from architecture to zoology and including professional fields such as accounting, engineering, nursing and physical therapy. “General education plays a role, but it is not possible to squeeze all these important aims into the general education program alone. The majors must address them as well.”

Some will argue that The NAAB Conditions for Accreditation are already too prescriptive, and after having been reduced over the last 15 years to the current 32, the Student Performance Criteria (SPC) should not be expanded. Some have already suggested that the NAAB abandon the criteria for general education, communication skills, collaboration skills, cultural literacy, ethics and time management as “already addressed by the regional accreditors.”

The NAAB appreciates the grinding pressure on faculty, departments and schools to produce more graduates in less time, to attract larger research grants, and to raise significant sums for operations. Yet in order to sustain a system of accreditation “that is responsive to the needs of society and allows institutions with varying resources and circumstances to evolve according to their individual needs” (NAAB Mission, Vision, and Values, October 2011), we must also listen carefully to what is going on in the world: Employers are calling for graduates who have a “working appreciation of the historical, cultural, ethical and global environments that surround the application of skilled work” (College Learning for the New Global Century, p. 16). College presidents and campus leaders like Coleman are anxious to redefine the learning they must deliver if our democracy is to succeed.

According to the early results of The American Institute of Architects’ repositioning project, its members agree that “architects are problem-solvers and community builders who direct the vision of a building project from concept to reality.”  This role within a community calls not only for individuals trained in the unique — some say “dangerous” — knowledge required to protect the health, safety and welfare of the public, but also prepared to think critically, analyze choices, synthesize information, organize the world of words and differentiate between the critical and the distracting.

The natural next questions are “how should these skills be assessed?” and “are NAAB teams prepared to look for the ‘right’ types of evidence of student achievement of these skills?” The conversations within the NAAB relative to the next review of The Conditions have already begun to focus on the importance of new assessment strategies. But where to begin?
In 2001, I read Italo Calvino’s book Six Memos for the Next Millennium as I was preparing a paper for the Oxford Roundtable on Higher Education and found embedded there clues for evaluating institutional success. Recently I reread that 2001 paper and began to consider whether within Calvino’s six qualities of literature there might be ideas for assessing student learning. Briefly, the six memos are:

Lightness – the ability to move into a different space in order to “change my approach, look at the work from a different perspective, with a different logic” (Calvino, 7). The ability to connect microcosm and macrocosm and explore the space between.

Quickness – the ability to think with “agility, mobility, and ease” (Calvino, 46). Finding that a rush of simultaneous ideas “sets the mind afloat on such an abundance of thoughts or images … that either it cannot embrace them all, or it has no time to be idle.” (Calvino, 42).

Exactitude – leadership that express priorities and objectives with “(1) a well-defined and well-calculated plan for the work in question. (2) an evocation of clear, incisive, memorable visual images: … and (3) a language as precise as possible” (Calvino, 56).

Visibility – giving image to words and words to image. Finding in verbal and written form the most concise and fulfilling expression of the intangible images and ideas that form the core of a project’s purpose.

Multiplicity – understanding and pressing the “network of connections between the events, the people and the things of the world” (Calvino, 105).

Consistency – the last memo was never completed by Calvino.

If these were used to identify the types of learning architecture students need in order to begin and complete professional studies, how would teams know? Imagine this:

Lightness – Do students demonstrate the ability to identify, explain and incorporate the needs of users/occupants according to the distinct cultural norms of any and all user groups? Do students demonstrate the ability to use multiple forms of graphic representation to explain their concepts and ideas? Do students demonstrate the ability to connect the larger needs of society (macrocosm) with the specific needs of the client (microcosm)?

Quickness – Do students demonstrate that they have explored multiple precedents, ideas, images, scientific information, and related disciplines in the search for a solution to the design problem as presented? Do they demonstrate the use of an “abundance of thoughts or images” rather than pursuing the most expedient or obvious solution?

Exactitude – Can students plan their work in such a way as to convince others of their ability to integrate all the required elements of a comprehensive design?

Visibility — Do students demonstrate the ability to think, draw, write and speak concisely and to fully express their ideas, objectives and outcomes for a particular project?

Multiplicity – Do students demonstrate their understanding of what it means to be a member of a democratic society and to act responsibly and with a view toward understanding the “network of connections between the events, the people and the things of the world?”

This is a set of ideas offered as a place to begin the discussion, not a set of final conclusions.

That said, based on the outcomes of The Study of Accredited Architectural Education and other analysis, the NAAB has already come to realize that educating the 21st century emerging professional calls not for fewer SPC related to leadership, collaboration, communication and critical thinking, but instead for improved definitions, better guidelines on how these SPC are manifested in student work, and new or different types of assessment strategies for teams.

To that end, I hope everyone will take advantage of the opportunity to contribute to the NAAB’s deliberations in 2013. The deadline for all submissions — white papers, letters, messages, reports, recommended reading or shared research — is Jan. 31, 2013. You can send them to forum@naab.org.

Andrea S. Rutledge, CAE, has been the executive director of The National Architectural Accrediting Board since 2007.

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