Linzi Murrie

  • Future past: the Bachelor of Arts in the 21st Century

    Linzi Murrie, Southern Cross University

    Conceptual paper

    Themes: course and programme design, skills development and lifelong learning

    Tuesday 8 September 2009, 16.00 - 17.00 in room G61

    Implicit in the task of imagining the experience of the 21st century learner is articulating anew the public role of the university and the purpose of higher education, and re-conceptualising curriculum. Recent critiques of higher education (Rowland 2006, Barnett 1997, Barnett & Coate 2005) argue that the university of the 21st century needs be fundamentally re-thought from that of our contemporary experience. These critiques address three central concerns: universities’ compliance with the demands of the global market, our condition of radical uncertainty and the importance of criticality in higher education. They offer visions for the 21st century university that are profoundly humanist. Rowland (2006) calls for the university to reframe its narrative as one of “critical service” in which intellectual, social and moral values connect it to the wider society (pp. 117-118) while Barnett (1997) calls for a higher education curriculum dedicated to the development of “critical persons” (pp. 104-105). This paper takes up their positions and focuses on the contemporary Australian experience of the Bachelor of Arts.

    History and tradition are both advantage and disadvantage for the Bachelor of Arts in Australia. It is the oldest degree program and remains one of the largest. Anxiety over its ‘contemporary relevance’, however, is manifest in the two large scoping studies of recent years, The Lettered Country (Pascoe, McIntyre, Ainley & Williamson 2003) and Nature and Roles of Arts Degrees in Contemporary Society (Deans of Arts and Social Sciences 2008). These studies found a diversity of degree types from the traditional liberal arts degree emphasising student choice and disciplinary breadth to focussed (including vocationally focussed) programs.

    Questions over the ‘contemporary relevance’ of the BA spring directly from universities’ increasing emphasis on specialisation, professional outcomes and employability and are reinforced by national research funding priorities that have progressively marginalised the liberal arts. In response, the liberal arts have emerged as a site of contestation in the larger question of the purpose of higher education. This struggle is evidenced in debates on common perceptions of the social and economic value of the Humanities and the Social Sciences and through a small but vigorous academic activism over the role of the university as a public body. Together, these developments suggest that the Bachelor of Arts is fertile ground for an exploration of the sort of visions articulated by Barnett and Rowland.

    What is missing in this scenario, however, is an understanding of the Arts curriculum as a ‘whole-of-program’ curriculum. As the DASSH scoping study found, curriculum is still almost exclusively understood among Bachelor of Arts academics as curriculum structure rather than curriculumpedagogy, and discussion of curriculum renewal remains isolated within individual disciplinary fields (Deans of Arts and Social Sciences (Summary Report 6) 2008, p. 5). A Bachelor of Arts for the 21st century learner faces the difficult task of drawing on the historical strengths of the Humanities and Social Sciences within a conceptualisation of holistic curriculum that is alien to past practice.