I missed you all yesterday, as I was on a retreat with college students and colleagues. The topic was that current college favorite, "identity." We talked about our personal identities, our group identities, the identity of the stereotypical Centre student, and how these all connected. Students talked quite a bit about how their various identities shaped who ate together, who played together, who joined which social groups together.
Near the end of the retreat I as struck by the fact that almost nothing had been said about the curriculum. Yet as I reflected on my own college experience, what I learned in class actually had as deep an effect on me as any social experience I had in college. In fact, the best social experiences were based on talking about ideas that we had studied in class. In the last class I taught before the retreat, two newlywed alumni came back to talk about marriage. Again and again they came back to how things they had learned in their classes applied to their new life and work.
One of my projects over the past few years has been to write a history of the college. I was impressed with how long Centre has had a distinctive identity, and shaped students in a distinctive way. Many factors go into that identity, but the curriculum always holds its own as a shaping force.
When we think about how our teaching shapes lives, the faculty are comfortable with the idea that we are making "critical thinkers." When we start talking about our teaching making good citizens, we get more nervous. To think that the curriculum should help make students into more virtuous people is to invite resistance. Yet the alumni attest it all the time.
The curriculum does shape student identity, whether we intend it or not. I think we should intend it, and choose our curriculum accordingly.