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Identifying Mechanisms Producing Liberal Arts Educational Outcomes

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I’ve participated in multiple discussions over the last few days, all of which are relevant to an important issue facing the country. The question of interest is the effect of a liberal arts education to valued life outcomes.

It’s first important to note that the term “liberal arts education” is not uniformly understood. From one perspective, the term is a property of an institution – some are liberal arts institutions; others, are not. From another perspective, the term is a function of individual experiences of students. Certainly, the ambiguity of the phrase “liberal arts education” is problematic for public arguments promoting its design. We have all been in conversations that equate the term “liberal arts” only with the humanities, missing its support of multi-disciplinary educational experiences. I have even heard the misinterpretation of the analog phrase, “liberal education,” as describing a political orientation of the education rather than its broad, multi-disciplinary curriculum. As academics describe the role of a liberal arts education, we need to acknowledge the common misinterpretation of the phrase by many outside the university.

Further complicating the discussion is that we’re not clear about what components of a liberal arts education are key to its outcomes. The stereotypical image is that of a small college, with a residential undergraduate population, small classes, a curriculum that forces exposures to multiple disciplines, serious attention to teaching among the faculty, and a rich set of extracurricular activities.

This perspective forces attention not to the experience of the student. It implies that different students at the same institution may experience different dosages of the features of a liberal arts education. It also implies that the same major across different institutions may have different educational experience (e.g., majors in philosophy at MIT or in engineering at Swarthmore vs. the same majors at the other institution).

Separately, I was reminded of the Gallup/Purdue survey of predictors of engagement in one’s career and well-being, using self-reported undergraduate experiences. It finds six strong predictors of these life outcomes:
1. I had a professor who made me excited about learning;
2. My professors cared about me as a person;
3. I had a mentor who encouraged me to pursue my goals;
4. I worked on a project that took a semester or more to complete;
5. I had an internship or job that allowed me to apply what I was learning;
6. I was extremely active in extracurricular activities and organizations.

Some of these attributes, especially those involving connections between students and faculty, require a faculty interested in teaching and interaction with undergraduates. These are hoped-for attributes of a liberal arts education. The attribute of extracurricular activities is more common in residential institutions than commuter institutions. So, some of these indicators might be natural features of many liberal education experiences.

Of course, the Gallup work is not singularly focused on identifying the effects of an undergraduate liberal education versus those of other educational designs. As we attempt to understand more about what features of a traditional liberal education produces its valuable outcomes, it does seem attractive to identify, from the student perspective, what experiences are key to those outcomes. This leaves open the possibilities that the “dosage” of those experiences will vary over students in the same institution. Further, it will help identify what features of liberal education deserve more investment by liberal arts institutions and which might be adopted by other institutions, to the benefit of students.

What is New; What is True

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While there are a variety of cultures across disciplines, departments, schools, fields of a university, there are also commonalities. The commonalities are most vivid in the scholarship or research activities of the diverse fields. It is true that there are very diverse methods and styles of scholarship. One field may pride itself on the work of scholars working by themselves; others, the work of multi-person teams. One field may create book length products of their scholarship; others, produce smaller bites of work disseminated through journal articles.

The commonality in scholarship and research exists in the privileging of novelty and creativity. Fields are constantly innovating, continuously attempting to expand their bases. New ideas, new approaches, new interpretations are valued. It is through such work that fields advance. They build upon their foundations. They enlarge their influence. Doing the same thing as prior research is devalued as repetitive or uninteresting. (I’ve written earlier about a weakness of this culture, but here I want to praise it.)

PhD students are mentored to choose an unexplored area or select an unsolved problem. New assistant professors are encouraged to forge a clear new identity, to build a distinctive theme in their scholarship to succeed. Innovation is the name of the game.

While each discipline values innovation, how do they determine which innovations are of lasting value? What is both new and true? All fields rely on some sort of peer review. That is, others in the same field judge whether an innovative product is a valued new contribution.

Some fields have rather strong paradigms, consisting of principles and time-tested findings. In them, a novel result that solves a knotty puzzle within the paradigm, but is consistent with the body of principles, can be rather quickly accepted. A piece of work whose novelty violates some of the well-accepted principles, on the other hand, is often greeted with intense skepticism. In that sense, the peer review criteria rest on the large base of prior research results, which are the foundation of the paradigm. The new work is evaluated using the old as a lens.

In fields with much weaker paradigms or fields that are collection of diverse approaches and foci, peer review values new interpretations and new approaches. Such fields value critiques of past work, but demand evidence. Radical new approaches require larger evidentiary bases for them to be accepted. Glowing reviews of books, awards for books, and later publications that build upon an approach taken in a book are signals of acceptance of innovation. The author is sought out by others for commentary in his field of expertise.

The more radical is the innovation, the longer the process of acceptance might take. Such fields use the dialectic of argument as a tool for innovation. When counter-arguments to an innovation cease or are judged ineffective, the new creation is on its way to incorporation into accepted knowledge.

One of the greatest values of the thirst for innovation within academic disciplines is that erroneous findings or conclusions of little general value are effectively dispelled. The continuous effort to extend knowledge has the great value of purging that which does not stand the test of peer review.


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As I approached the archway of the ICC building yesterday, I noticed, along with other announcements of events, an 8.5 x 10 inch piece of paper taped to the brick wall.

The authoring group or persons were unidentified. Instead of announcing an upcoming lecture or a performing arts event, the sheet contained a numbered list of items. Its format was odd enough that it caught my attention.

The title conveyed that this was a list of features of Georgetown for which the anonymous authors were thankful. It was a list of services on campus, of people who provide care to students and faculty, and of programs that are part of the Georgetown community. Although the list was numbered, I didn’t really perceive a priority implication of the order. Rather, it seemed more like the result of quiet reflection about one’s life on campus.

I must admit the uniqueness of the announcement and the mystery of the who, how, and why of the list captured my attention. I stopped my usual rush to the office in an attempt to understand its origin and purpose. I’ve since given up, but I greatly admire the idea of the list and its effectiveness of literally stopping me in my tracks.

I do know that I owe the author(s) an appreciation. In attempting to unravel the mystery, I’ve realized that I too have a list of those attributes of Georgetown I appreciate.

First to come to mind are the members of several faculty and student groups that give the provost office input on new initiatives and ways to improve the university. All of these are volunteers. Each has his/her own duties and stresses in their current role. They freely give us advice despite limits on their time. Their very willingness to help us in this way is testament to their devotion to the institution. Instead of merely seeking their own success, they want to produce a better community.

Second to mind was a recent event. I was walking across campus yesterday and saw the grounds crew, leaning over the flower beds digging up the dying fall flowers and planting bulbs that will be the Spring flowers. They were each bent at the waist, tilling the soil and injecting the bulbs into the ground. I could imagine my own back ache after hours of such work. It also reminded me of how proud I am to see the bright flowers at the front gates on a sunny Spring morning. I should have thanked those men as those thoughts quickly ran through my mind.

Finally, as the students quickly emptied out of the campus as the hours progressed this Thanksgiving week, the campus became quiet. Today, Wednesday before Thanksgiving, there were few faculty around, almost no students, especially in the afternoon. Those hanging in through the Wednesday hours were disproportionately administrative staff, committed to finishing out their work, regardless of the class schedule. On many days, they often stay later than others. They’re often here when faculty and senior administrators are away. I appreciate their commitment to the institution and to the community of which they are such an important part.

Those are a few of the parts of Georgetown that make me grateful. Thanks to them (and thanks to the author(s) of their own list for making me stop and pay attention!).

Peer Review and Quality Assessment in Research

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Those subject to peer review of their proposals for research funding or of their scholarly products view it as a significant hurdle to succeeding in their careers. To those outside of academia, peer review can be misinterpreted as cronyism that illegitimately rewards friends and allies.  That interpretation is far away from my experience.

The peer review process is founded on the belief that those at the cutting edge of their fields are best suited to judging the value of proposed new work. The rate of success for many federal government research grant proposals is less than 15%. Having served on scores of such review panels, I have vivid memories of the care and critical review that is exercised in the evaluative deliberations. With the success rate so low, the critical review is fierce in most panels.

For all fields, the same peer review process is used to judge the value of completed scholarly products. In those fields producing books, the prestige of publishers is related to the rigor of the review process. Editors jealously compete to attract the best work of the best scholars. Editorial boards give advice to the organization on the value of a given series. The author of a mediocre manuscript submits to a long sequence of presses before an affirmative decision to publish is given, if ever.

For those fields whose scholarship is disseminated through journals, peer review rigor is often reflected in the success rate of submissions, which for some journals hovers in single digit percentages. The decision of a journal is the result of critical reviews by peers in the area the article addresses. The competition is fierce.

So, in sum, most of the attributes of peer review act to reward the very best in scholarship. But there are weaknesses.

I have vivid memories of a scientist friend of mine, now one of the most highly cited in his field, in his early years of work. He was attacking the dominant paradigm in practice in his field and having repeated difficulties getting his work published. The rejections brought criticism, calls for more evidence, and resistance to his approach. He was forced to publish his work in less impactful, second-tier journals. All was not lost, as the value of his work was eventually recognized, albeit much more slowly that, in retrospect, it deserved to be.

Peer review is effective in evaluating the marginal contribution of work fully within the accepted framework of a subfield. Peer review performs less well for work disruptive of the status quo. Its conservatism in evaluating field-changing results is a weakness from one perspective, but a strength, from another, as it asks a higher level of evidence for such challenges to decades of accepted findings.

As the number of scholarly outlets increases with web-based journals and other electronic publications, the opportunities have increased to get one’s work disseminated. One hopes that path-breaking work has higher opportunity to see the light of day. In any case, honest criticism inherent in the peer review process remains a strength of the academic enterprise.

The Role of the Seminar in Intellectual Growth

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The new Intellectual Life Report of the main campus faculty proffers the argument that first year seminars may be important tools for the growth of our students. It’s an idea worth pursuing.

Universities offer unique lessons when faculty members reveal to students the passionate interests they have in their area of expertise. There are many ways that this can happen. Sometimes, there is a component of a lecture-based class that highlights the research area of the instructor. Students recognize these components by a noticeable animation in the instructor’s behavior. The excitement in the lecturer’s voice becomes contagious. Laptops are closed. Attention is paid. Memories are constructed. Increasing the opportunities for our faculty to deliver such content is worthwhile. For first-year students, contact with an active scholar in his/her field of expertise is a new experience.

Another key lesson underlying intellectual growth is “going deep.” This means different experiences in different fields. In some, it is very careful reading, slowly decomposing thoughts, reassembling them, imagining alternative meanings. Going deep in other fields exposes students to the edge of a dominant paradigm. It reveals the questions that are not yet answered. It may reveal a nagging puzzle facing the field. For first-year students, such activities are novel.

These experiences often accompany critique of content that is being consumed by the students. They are asked to challenge the ideas, methods, or conclusions of the authors they are reading. This criticism requires a level of attention that goes far beyond that necessary to regurgitate the content. The reader is looking for gaps in the logic, weaknesses in the execution of the research, or flaws in the conclusions. Few first-year students have experienced such exercises.

Perhaps the most important experience is linked to all of the above – the act of original scholarship or research. While many experts in a field have suspicions about the real contribution of undergraduate research, they miss, in my opinion, a real benefit of the research experience to the student. Regardless of the topic, regardless of limited sophistication in the field, the act of trying to answer a question that you yourself have crafted, one that captures your interest, brings unique value. First, you discover the feeling of “living by your wits.” It’s your question; you need to figure out how to proceed. Second, answering such questions most often proceed in unanticipated directions before you can wrestle them into submission. Experiencing that life cycle of work is difficult but thrilling. Third, the feeling that you have created a new thought or a new finding, however small, is the seed of lasting creativity. Psychologists talk about a trait, the “need for cognition,” which, I think, is nurtured through these experiences.

All of these experiences are enhanced when the students have an environment that allows them to communicate their work to others. This communication forces a certain translation from their deeper understanding to others who may not share it. They are exposed to the comments and suggestions of peers in this work. They learn the give-and-take of constructive criticism in real time. Few first-year students have been active participants in such dialogue.

Successful first-year seminars, proposed by the Intellectual Life Report, are not merely classes with a small number of students. They are pedagogical designs that, through the actions above and others, reveal to the student the joys of the life of the mind. They succeed when the students conclude that their role is not that of a receptacle into which information is poured. Instead, they are capable of shaping their own learning. They can self-teach. They can invent new combinations of information to interpret the world. These experiences can change how they benefit from later courses at Georgetown. Indeed, these are experiences critical to a life well-lived.

The Inquiring Minds of Students

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It is common for degree programs to have a set of required courses, taken by all who seek the degree, as well as a set of elective courses, subject to the choice of a student. As a student of statistics, one of my fondest memories was taking a statistical sampling course (required for me) with a graduate student from the archeology department (an elective for her). She wanted to import statistical methods into site investigations to increase the likelihood of discovery. Her presence in the class enlarged the set of practical examples we all, as students, struggled to apply to the theories we were learning. She made the class better for everyone.

My memory returns to that as I learn in my student advisory committees about student desires to enrich their education with electives outside their major focus, outside the school of their program, or outside their program’s campus. Increasingly, students want to broaden their knowledge with courses far outside their field. They see connections between diverse fields that the standard curriculum does not reflect.

We are striving to increase knowledge production at Georgetown by supporting the interdisciplinary inquiry that faculty members wish to pursue. It is logical, I believe, to support similar desires on the part of our students, whether or not we have previously conceived of the value of combining knowledge domains.

The newest Intellectual Life Report of the faculty has urged a lowering of barriers for students to enroll in courses throughout the university. There are cultural, pedagogical, and logistical challenges that must be overcome to implement this recommendation.

Some faculty are worried about the burden of teaching students without prerequisite knowledge to succeed in a course. Certainly, we need to articulate the needed knowledge more clearly, to assure that students not taking the normal sequence of prior courses, are aware of what skills and knowledge are needed to succeed in the class.

Some school cultures breed strong identities for students inside the school, complicating the acceptance of those outside the school in their classes. We need effective ways to address those cultural weaknesses.

Schools vary greatly in their class sizes. The relative burden of adding one more student varies as a function of the class size. We probably need to have new conversations about class size differences across schools.

If a new section of an existing class must be developed because of demand external to the program, financial support is needed. This is another variant of the constant problem of calibrating the supply of talented instructors to the demand for given courses. We’ll need to address this.

Student formation may be harmed if they choose courses outside their field that add little to their cumulative knowledge. Widening the menu of elective courses probably requires more advising guidance from mentors.

All of the counterarguments for permitting more flexibility for students’ election of courses, I believe, can be addressed.

Careful structuring of academic practices to serve both our students and faculty can be achieved.

Facts Without a Point of View

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Daniel Patrick Moynihan is thought to have first uttered the famous line: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” This is a post about the need for facts to be assembled without a point of view.

One of the attributes of academia that, in my opinion, ensures its continuity is a sharp separation between the viewpoint of the human beings involved in assembling facts and the outcome of the fact-seeking.

Now, before I am attacked by the constructionist side of my brain: I am fully aware of how the cultures of disciplines act as a lens that focuses on some facts more than others. I accept that the dominant conceptual framework of a field can blind one to facts that contradict well-honed assumptions. I know how difficult it is for a lone critic to have impact on the accepted paradigm.

However, I also know how every field thirsts for new ideas, new approaches, new facts that extend current understanding. Each field rewards the new. All scholars believe their job is to get closer to a perfect understanding. Each work attempts to add the new. In addition, the dialectic among alternative conclusions, active peer review, and field debate are also deeply embedded in most academic fields. I am certain of nothing more than that we are critical of others’ work. We are suspicious of work that appears to have been too heavily manipulated by the author’s point of view. We are suspicious of over-stating or over-interpreting. Reputations depend on letting the material guide the outcome, not the predispositions of the scholar. The “facts” produced by the research must stand on their own.

At the societal level, democracies depend on a continual flow of facts about their current status. What portion of the population is employed for pay? What is the income distribution across households? What subgroups suffer health conditions at higher rates? How is the price of everyday necessities changing? What portion of the population is victimized by criminal acts? On this score, most modern nation states have constructed a similar divide between the units that collect information for common good uses and those in control of the reins of government. Most don’t let the political ideology of the current elected leadership affect the production of such information. The collection of those facts should be a dispassionate one.

These numbers are useful to a society only if they are credible to large portions of the populace. Credibility has both technical and socio-emotional features. For the large portions of the population, however, the technical aspects of such information are unknown or not easily understood. Hence, trust is the basis of credibility. Without trust in the authoring organization, these numbers have little value in a democracy. One source of trust is the separation of the production of statistical information from political interference.

Hence, just as in the academy, the collection of facts at a nation-state level must be driven by a “disinterested” search for the truth. “Disinterested” here means that investigator is indifferent to the outcome of the fact gathering. Just as in academic research, the continuous search for a better approximation to truth is the motivation of the author.

Societies that lose the ability to collect information in such a manner risk creating a citizenry that loses trust in the information itself. Without trusted information, the chances of an informed citizenry guiding the democracy are limited.

Research as Service

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It is common for faculty to assess their contribution to the university and their profession along three dimensions – teaching, research, and service. These roughly correspond to the three central goals of all universities – formation of their students, original inquiry and discovery, and advancement of the common good.

“Service” at most universities consists of administrative duties associated with the shared governance of the academy. This includes leadership and membership on the various committees common to an academic unit (e.g., curriculum, graduate admissions, seminar committees), as well as membership on university committees (e.g., school executive committees, presidential task forces). It reflects service to one’s profession, through committee and elected offices of national and international associations. Finally, it concerns community outreach – how have the candidates contributed their expertise to improvements for the general public.

For Jesuit universities, the service dimension has an added goal of aid to disadvantaged populations and the poor; indeed, a social justice mission is explicit in such universities. Land grant universities also tend to have more explicit goals involving community service, quite independent of their education and research mission. Such service is much more oriented to groups outside the university than the service of academic administration. Most Jesuit universities have ongoing opportunities for faculty and students to directly serve the community (e.g., tutoring in underserved neighbors, health clinics, legal advisory services).

This arbitrary differentiation of teaching, research, and service increasingly seems ill-suited to the lives of many of my colleagues. I’ve written about the movement toward integrating research and teaching more fully. Such research-based courses are beloved by students and give faculty members the chance to integrate two parts of their lives.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve grown to be uncomfortable with the stark separation between research and service. Georgetown’s service to the common good must be exercised as a university. That is the type of institution that we are. Many faculty represent fields that cannot have direct impact on issues of social justice. Most faculty, however, are pursuing agendas that can have large indirect benefits to the common good. For example, our colleagues in the basic sciences that pursue discoveries about the mechanisms that affect human organ performance may not directly improve the health of anyone. However, the amelioration of human health conditions may not be possible without their discoveries. When asked for reasons why they’ve chosen to use their knowledge and skills in the way they have, they will often note their hopes for indirect beneficial effects on humanity. Similarly, a mathematician using knowledge and skills to model climate change can be using his/her knowledge in hopes of informing policy for improvement of the earth’s future state. An economist who studies the impact of education on income can be motivated by hopes of extending the benefits of formal education to disadvantaged groups. A poet can produce words that motivate action towards the common good.

In short, scholarship can be conducted in service of the common good, with the goal of improving the state of the poorest among us. Universities collectively serve the common good when the research questions pursued by their faculty and students can be a piece of effective action to serve these needs. Some of our expertise directly serves; other fields of knowledge can only indirectly serve. Nearly all our scholarly work, however, can be part of the solution.

Global Competition, Global Diplomacy, and Academic Research

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A colleague of mine recently reminded me that, during the Cold War, nuclear physicists in the Soviet Union and the US continued scientific exchanges. In the opinion of some, these exchanges were critical to the eventual diplomatic agreement between the two countries regulating nuclear armaments.

Academics can easily build bonds with those working in the same knowledge domain, regardless of where they live. Sometimes these encounters take place in professional conferences, where those from several countries describe their work to one another. This free sharing of work is motivated, of course, partly by the selfish desires of individual scholars to obtain praise from the peers, but also by the obligatory acknowledgement of the dependence of one’s own work on the prior work of others. Cross-national dependencies and collaborations are common.

Ignorance about this sharing culture can lead to misinterpretations of comparisons across countries in scholarly activities. For example, a recent report compared countries on inputs and outputs of investments in research.  The first figure below plots national expenditures on research and development between 1981-2015 for major groupings of nation-states. The United States leads in expenditures (adjusted for purchasing price differences) throughout this period, but in the last 10 years the rate of increase by China is much higher than all countries.

In one sense, the first graph reports financial inputs to the research and development sector of the societies. The second graph reports one output – the number of peer reviewed articles in science and engineering fields between 2003-2016 (the last few years of the first chart). Here the European Union leads for every year, but the rate of increase for China again exceed other countries in the past few years. China passed the US in number of articles in 2016.


With the perspective of competition among nation-states, it’s tempting to conclude that the US is “losing” in knowledge production across the world. A nationalistic reaction to such information is, however, myopic.

Such a reaction, I believe, ignores two attributes of academic research. First, the rewards of individual academic scholars derive from wide dissemination of their work. They seek broad sharing; they revel in reactions and praise of their work by others; they carefully monitor the impact of their work on others. Hence, the work of one country’s scholars is available to all. Knowledge is freely shared globally. The “profits” of higher scientific volume cannot be retained only by the country of the scholar. Second, as the story of the nuclear physicists in the Cold War illustrates, many scholars thrive on collaboration and collegial interchange. They don’t conceptualize their work as part of the national production of knowledge or an advancement of proprietary value but rather part of the product of a global group of scholars working in a similar area. These groups form inter-nation ties that are strong.

In a world where conflicts between countries may arise, academic exchanges and scholarly collaborations become even more important. Investment in research is not just good for a country that invests, it’s good for the world and the ties among societies.

Critical Thinking, Imagination, Creativity, Interpretation, Design Thinking, Problem Solving, Self-Teaching, Inquiry, Scholarship, Research

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One of the joys of being a provost is learning a bit about the cultures of diverse areas of study within the university. Some fields are relatively united around a strong conceptual framework identifying key questions and methods to answer them. Other fields are debating what key questions should be addressed or what methods, used to answer them.

The fields also vary in their nomenclature for research or scholarship. “Discovery” as a word implies facts waiting to be uncovered. “Interpretation” implies the existence of alternative knowledge from the same entity (e.g., a text, an object). Both require an invention on the part of the student. Sometimes we label the invention a new “hypothesis;” sometimes it is creating a novel interpretation or critical review of a pre-existing piece of work. So, the different fields have developed different words to describe these methods of advancing insight — critical thinking, imagination, creativity, interpretation, design thinking, problem solving, self-teaching, inquiry, scholarship, research.

These variations are relevant to challenges facing higher education today. We now know that most of our current students will live beyond 100 years. Further, the world they inhabit will repeatedly create and destroy whole occupational classes, industries, and life styles. It seems clear that the content of what we teach in some fields will be radically different 30-40 years from now, yet our graduates may then only be in the middle of their work careers. What will they need, when they’re 80 years old, facing the elimination of their third or fourth occupation, to retool, to learn a new field, so that they can enter their last occupation before retiring at 95 years old?

The leaders of the future must be nimble self-teachers. How do students learn to be self-teachers? Self-teaching is a lot like original research or scholarship.

Those disciplines with very well-developed paradigms, organized about a set of integrated concepts and practices, tend to have distinctive pedagogical strategies. They start with fact-based courses that introduce the student to key sets of knowledge, with successive courses building upon the early ones. In such fields, only the later classes in the major expose the students to the cutting-edge problems the faculty themselves are currently researching. At that point, they too can begin original research.

In contrast, fields that have diverse perspectives, looser frameworks, more open scopes, can allow the student more immediate participation in the process of invention within the discipline. Such disciplines can introduce students to original inquiry much earlier in their exposure to the field.

Regardless of the field, the faster we can get students working in original research, the faster they can acquire skills that will serve them in the later years of their lives. Ideally, the future of Georgetown liberal education will give each student research-methods’ skills from every major field of human knowledge.

In short, research in all areas of study depends on critical thinking (or whatever they call it). Graduates who know many different research methods will be more successful in the future than those who have a more limited set of tools. At Georgetown, the innovation in teaching methods, the integration of research and teaching into courses, and the developments in experiential learning will assure that students become familiar with multiple methods during their time here. If we continue to advance these initiatives, we can be more assured that the decisions of 80-year-old Georgetown graduates will be well grounded in diverse self-teaching skills.

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