SAS Dean’s Blog

Where Have We Come From?

Rebecca Bushnell

Rebecca Bushnell

Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences and Thomas S. Gates, Jr. Professor of English

By definition, my role at the School of Arts and Sciences requires me to spend much of my time thinking about the future. What kind of education will serve our students best? How do we adapt to the needs of a changing world? How do we prepare graduate students who will define the faculty of the future? In answering questions like these, I find it helpful, from time to time, to recall where we have come from. For me, this means examining the traditional model of a university in the liberal arts in the United States as it was, perhaps, 50 years ago.

American universities were, without a doubt, agents of change in the last century, leading innovation in research while at the same time retaining much of their traditional structure and composition. Research and education remained focused on the traditional disciplines—subjects such as physics, philosophy, sociology and chemistry—core areas of basic knowledge, each governed by distinct sets of analytical methods and theoretical frameworks. The core disciplines of the arts and sciences remained quite stable over this period of time: The list of SAS departments from 50 years ago is surprisingly similar to the list today—though not 100% identical. In my own deanship I have presided sadly over the demise of one department, but also the birth of a new one, a department of Africana Studies.

In this era, education was largely something that students came to school to do. It was campus-based, with an occasional junior year abroad in France or Italy. This meant, of course, that a defining part of the educational experience was the social interaction that happened on campuses outside the classroom, in the dormitories and social clubs and on the playing fields.

In the classrooms of that campus-based education, teaching went on the way it had for decades, or maybe centuries: in the one-on-one tutorial, the seminar or the large lecture class, with the professor speaking and the students listening. Exceptions involved discussion or a Socratic exchange. Apart from the natural science laboratory, technologies of teaching included the pen and the pencil, the blackboard and chalk.

And what were those teachers and students like? Until fairly recently, the composition of the student body of the typical elite universities in the U.S. was relatively uniform: mostly white, mostly American, and, with less financial aid available, generally affluent. Reflecting post-War prosperity, there were many first-generation college students. The great public research universities prospered more from state and federal funding, which made tuition cheaper: In those institutions, there was more socioeconomic diversity.

For women, the doors to Ivy League universities did not fully open until the late 1960s (Penn was something of an exception, with its College for Women). When I was applying to colleges in 1970, Yale and Princeton had just begun to admit women, but I could not have applied to Harvard or Brown, only to their sister schools of Radcliffe and Pembroke.

The faculty, likewise, was largely white and male—no matter what the subject matter was. And when it came to the humanities and the social sciences, the subject matter was largely Western.  When scholarship did address matters outside the West, it was from a Western point of view. It was only in the 1960s that things began to change, with the birth of ethnic and gender studies and the rethinking of "global" on American campuses, which accompanied the changing demographics of both faculty and students.

Much has changed since that time. While education is still largely campus-based, the populations at elite liberal arts colleges and universities in the U.S. today are much more diverse. Walking through Penn’s campus I see many different sorts of faces and hear conversations going on in multiple languages. We teach subjects that were nonexistent or marginalized 50 years ago—like Asian-American literature, or cinema studies, or the sociology of race—while sustaining traditional subjects. I can report that Sanskrit, for example, is still going strong, at least at Penn.  And while the average classroom  might look familiar to someone from a century ago who dropped in, more and more learning is taking place online, in internet chats and discussion boards, web-based quizzes and demonstrations, and video lessons. 

The scope of change over the past 50 years demonstrates that the liberal arts model is not a rigid, antiquated structure, but a living framework capable of adapting and meeting the demands of a changing world. Against this background, I would argue that meeting new challenges has always been a part of what we in the liberal arts do—and what we will continue to do for the next 50 years.