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Johns Hopkins UniversityArts and Sciences Magazine


A Hopkins Education

Adam Falk

Adam Falk

A year ago in this space, I expressed some thoughts about the controversial issue of student learning assessment. Among other things, I wrote that it was a commonly expressed view of alumni across the generations, a view that I share, that what is “important and lasting” in a Hopkins education is “learning to think rigorously, rather than absorbing any particular body of information.” This assertion begs the question, though, of what exactly characterizes the education we aim to deliver here. What makes us who we are? Whom do we seek to serve, and how do we seek to serve them?

Such fundamental notions of who we are and what we do deserve careful and consistent consideration, especially now, as the School of Arts and Sciences begins a leadership transition. On April 1, I will assume the presidency of Williams College (you can read more about this news here). As I prepare to leave this remarkable community that has been my home for more than 15 years, I find myself reflecting on the philosophy of education that has long given Hopkins a special place within the landscape of American higher education. Reduced to a few core principles, I believe that philosophy would be as follows.

  1. Our education is student-faculty centered, rather than curriculum centered.
    The fundamental purpose of the university is to bring students together with faculty, in a space that supports and encourages their intimate interaction over academic matters. To the greatest extent practical, faculty should be free to teach the material that most excites them, in the style they find most congenial. Students should be as free as possible to find those faculty members they connect with and learn from them. To be sure, we have fixed curriculum where appropriate — survey courses in the humanities, introductory courses in the social sciences, and sequentially taught material in the natural sciences. After all, someone has to teach Physics 101 every year! But the curriculum is fixed only to the extent necessary, and not as an end in itself. As faculty change, and their interests evolve, our offerings are continually enriched by their new passions. Although our professors are relatively small in number, the course catalog is very diverse, and students get plenty of guidance in navigating the rich choices available to them.

  2. The purpose of distribution requirements is to introduce alternative methods and perspectives, not to cover particular content.
    The category of things that one could legitimately argue “any educated person/any college graduate should know” is vast, far too vast to cover in a college education. (Try the exercise yourself, with your own list—I assure you that you’ll write down 30 must-have courses in no time at all. My own favorites include probability and statistics, fluency in a foreign language, an understanding of the Earth’s ecosystem, the history of 20th-century America, and the ability to swim — at least 10 courses, right there!) In the face of the practical limits imposed by four years of study, many universities engage in bitter disputes about the relative merits of different disciplinary areas—should a cultural diversity requirement, say, displace an existing requirement on world history? We avoid this trap by proposing that the purpose of work outside a student’s major is to expose her to new modes of thinking and categories of analysis. We don’t create segregated “core” classes for students to fulfill their distribution requirements. Rather, the best thing a chemistry student can do to broaden her perspective is to sit side by side with history majors, say, in a real History Department seminar. Whatever the particular subject matter, she will learn something of what it is to read, write, and think like a historian.

  3. Students should have the freedom to explore as deeply as they can in the direction that excites them most.
    One of the great benefits of coming to study as an undergraduate at a research university is the incredible strength of offerings provided by the graduate programs and the scholarly work of the faculty. At Hopkins we have always welcomed well-prepared undergraduates into our graduate courses and our laboratories, and the relative lightness of our distribution requirements allows many students to seize that opportunity. Given the small size of our student body and the enormous scope of research across Johns Hopkins, including the schools of Medicine and Public Health, there is probably no institution with richer opportunities for undergraduate students to do research under the mentorship of distinguished faculty. We believe that Hopkins should be a place where the ambitious student, excited to take intellectual risks, is supported fully in embracing difficult challenges.

In essence, we at Hopkins are concerned with the serious student. There is a lot to do on the Homewood campus besides study, and we encourage our students to take full advantage of it, but it’s also true that for a student to fully flourish here, her academic work must be deeply meaningful to her. And as we are concerned with serious students, we treat them seriously—as young men and women who can be trusted to make appropriate decisions about how to wring the best academic experience for them out of four years at Hopkins. We consistently value freedom of choice, and the concomitant risks, over curricular constraints, and their concomitant safety. Not all students will find this the best path for them, but we seek to draw to Hopkins those special young people for whom this is a path, and a set of academic values, set out more clearly here than at any other institution.

Adam F. Falk
James B. Knapp Dean