Taking on Big Questions

Taking on Big Questions


CUI’s ground-breaking Core curriculum, introduced in 2010, did so much to elevate academic performance and campus conversations that the University has restructured its general education courses in a significant and similar way. The result is CUI’s signature Enduring Questions & Ideas (Q&I) curriculum which takes big questions—such as “What is liberty?” “Who am I and who are they?” and “Who do you say that I am?”—and makes them the focus of each general education course.

“General education courses at Concordia Irvine are no longer gateway courses to a major but windows to the world,” says Scott Ashmon, associate provost and professor of Old Testament and Hebrew. “We are developing critical thinking skills, communication and collaboration, but those are not ends in themselves. It’s what you do with them that’s important. We want to orient students toward big things that humanity has wrestled with.”

The shift takes Concordia closer to its liberal arts roots, where fundamental questions about what it means to be human are engaged through reading, writing and debate. General education courses now aim to answer questions like: “How shall I live?” “Why art?” “What is eloquence?” and “How do I understand nature?”

We want to orient students toward big things that humanity has wrestled with.

“The word ‘university’ means to see it all together,” says Ashmon. “Universities originally didn’t look at disciplines as discrete subjects, but as ways to see the truth together, to see the big picture. All universities are dealing with these questions, but they tend to get subsumed. We want to forefront them. To be an educated citizen requires engaging with these questions and living together in certain ways.”

The bold move grew out of the positive effect of the Core curriculum on campus life and academics. The Core introduced paired courses, such as biology and theology, creating a framework to engage larger questions across disciplines. But some wondered if the unique and more-demanding approach of the Core would dampen student enrollment or drive down GPAs.

“It actually helped students, partly because we were providing support like peer tutoring and one-on-one meetings with professors,” says Ashmon. “What you expect of students is what they will be able to do. Faculty saw marked improvement in the students’ ability to engage with primary works, ask questions and write about these subjects.” Before the Core, CUI students were squarely in the middle of the pack in surveys of student engagement. Three years after instituting the Core, in many categories of learning practices, CUI ranked in the top ten percent in the nation.

“That was a significant leap forward, and that led to the idea to expand with Q&I,” says Ashmon.

Another measure—informal, but perhaps important—might be called the breakfast burrito metric. Faculty noticed that before the Core, student commencement speakers often mentioned breakfast burritos as a humorous example of what graduates would miss at CUI, while few mentioned academics.

Since the Core was introduced, “every graduation speaker has mentioned the Core in their speech as a formative part of their experience,” says Ashmon. “It is a significant identity piece in the curriculum now. It used to be breakfast burritos. Now it’s the Core.”

Bringing a “Core-ish” approach to general education seemed a natural next step, so in 2015, a committee was created to study and propose how to transform CUI’s general education approach. Sociology professor Kristin Koenig served on the committee.

“We debated things, and there were times there wasn’t agreement in the room about what kind of great questions a course should fit in, but I was impressed by colleagues who took the questions and ran with what it might look like,” Koenig says. “There was healthy debate and a process by which the broader faculty would propose how their courses fit into these questions.”

For example, a question like “Who am I and who are they?” runs through psychology, anthropology, economics, sociology and all sorts of disciplines, says Ashmon.

“Each discipline could chime in on that question,” he says. “All students and faculty know we are addressing this question, and we can talk to each other across disciplines.”

One of Q&I’s resulting requirements was that faculty assign more primary texts, as Core courses do. Gilbert Fugitt, associate vice president and dean of students, used to teach a one-unit leadership development class for student leaders which “felt like an elective” and drew small numbers. In response to the committee’s invitation to revamp the course under Q&I, Fugitt and others sought to build something more robust.

“The struggle was to connect it to classical thought and be engaging,” Fugitt says. “We’re not philosophers. What would this look like to teach? How do we make it hands-on and practical, connect it back to big questions and integrate Christian faith into it?”

To be an educated citizen requires engaging with these questions and living together in certain ways.

He and several faculty members researched primary sources and came up with a syllabus that includes Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, the Gettysburg Address, and sections of Scripture that highlight leadership styles. All discussions point back to the focal question, “How shall I live?”

The once-sleepy course has been reborn as a 3-unit class for all students which is “my favorite thing to teach,” Fugitt says. “It’s invigorating. It’s fun. I can really see how this impacts students. You get to know them really well and see them build confidence in what they can be as leaders. It’s interesting to see people wrestle with the concepts and how they can apply them in their own lives, families, sports teams and so on.”

The class is so popular that they had to cap it at thirty students. Each writes a culminating final paper answering the question, “What principles and ethics guide your leadership?”

“I love it,” says Fugitt. “These students really open up in their papers. We talk about how you live, how you lead, how you treat people, how you will run an organization as a businessman, a missionary or a teacher. I feel confident in our sources, and the biblical part is really powerful.”

Koenig says Q&I’s approach doesn’t lock students into “a vanilla-flavor intro class which is usually a survey.” Rather, “It gives them more depth,” she says. “It’s a great way to show the connection between these disciplines. Many of us are asking the same questions; we just may come at them from different perspectives.”

In some ways, Q&I demands more of both faculty and students. Students dig deeper into primary sources, and write more, while faculty meet together to talk about how the classes are going and agree on what needs to be improved.

But in another way, “it becomes easier to teach because you can always loop back and say, ‘What does this have to do with the question?’” Ashmon says. “It’s very fulfilling and a lot of fun.”

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