In the Spring 2012 issue of “The Presidency,” Carol T. Christ, president of Smith College in Northampton, MA writes to dispel the myth that a liberal arts education is becoming increasingly irrelevant in the modern world. She writes:
"It is no longer news that career trajectories are varied and multiple; that our professional pursuits have distinct chapters over the course of our lives; and that, especially for women, the ability to step off and back on the career track during childbearing years is critical to advancement. Flexibility, creativity, critical thinking, and strong communication skills (particularly writing) are at the core of liberal arts education and critical to success today and in the future. It’s not surprising that a recent survey by the Association of American Colleges and Universities shows that more than three-quarters of employers would recommend an education with this emphasis to a young person they know. The challenges our graduates will face are more global than ever. Any judgment of value we place on a liberal arts education must take into account the new reality of the “flat” world."
I am particularly taken with the way President Christ characterizes liberal arts education as being centered around notions of “flexibility, creativity, critical thinking, and strong communication skills” with an emphasis on writing. As someone firmly committed to the idea that dance has a place within the liberal arts/studies curriculum, it seems that the discipline of dance studies is extremely well suited to serve the goals of a liberal arts education. The characteristics that Christ points out are calling cards of a well-developed dance department curriculum that is informed by the needs of 21st century students and not held captive by centralizing what existing faculty can teach at any given institution.
It seems to me that if we consider (a) the needs of our students to exist and thrive competitively in a global marketplace, (b) the demands of dance as a discipline constituted by many practices (other than, but including performance,) and (c) the need to remain competitive in the academic context to ensure our programs thrive, some changes need to be made. Plainly, we need to re-think the structure of our programs, the benchmarks we use to determine how students progress through a dance major and what we think constitutes a “strong program.” I am particularly concerned about the ways in which undergraduate dance programs often place such a high priority (as evidenced by budget and resource allocations, scholarship decisions and hiring practices) on the centrality of performance rather than emphasizing the broader range of practices that constitute the discipline, (like pedagogy, research and therapy, for example) to ensure that our students have the ability to develop the traits central to a liberal arts education. By allowing our students the “freedom” (one of the meanings of the word “liberal”) to truly explore and engage the various aspects of dance (including a variety of movement genres and performance practices, introducing teaching and research modalities and therapeutic applications,) their chances of developing flexibility, creativity, critical thinking and strong communication skills would be heightened.
What do you think? What kinds of challenges do you see that would make it difficult to implement these kinds of changes in an existing program? What models do you know of that are already taking a more holistic approach to educating undergraduate dance majors?