This Three-legged Stool: Where does a biologist sit?

by Ellen S. Goldey
William R. Kenan Professor and Chair of Biology

Wofford’s biology department was awarded the 2012 Exemplary Program Award from the Association for General and Liberal Studies. This past week John Moeller and I traveled to Portland, Oregon to accept the award on behalf of our colleagues.

In a short acceptance speech, I shared my vision of General and Liberal Studies, and how our new first year curriculum fortifies Wofford’s General Education program. I told them about the metaphor of the three-legged stool I use with prospective students and their parents, a metaphor that my poet friend and colleague John Lane shared with me. The legs of the stool are the Humanities, the Social Sciences, and the Natural Sciences, and the seat of the stool is the integration of these habits of mind. From such a seat comes the ability to apply the knowledge, skills, and dispositions of each area, not only to secure a job, but more importantly to develop the wisdom to resolve complex civic problems and to find purpose and meaning in life. Thus the stool must be sturdy, with its legs well balanced.

I told the audience in Portland how much I love teaching first year students. In that first year, the students are scared. They are expecting to be challenged (even though they hope it won’t happen) and they want their professors to care about them and to ensure their success. Our true role as professors, however, is to give them opportunities – and to motivate the students to grab them. We must require them to work harder than they thought possible, because with their hard work will come self-confidence, maturity, and personal satisfaction.

I shared with the audience that my husband is an archeologist and scholar of Religion, and he has often pointed out that those whose lives are filled with meaning and purpose can endure great suffering – Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela, and Stephen Hawking come to mind – whereas those who acquire great wealth and power, but find their lives devoid of purpose, often struggle to face the next day. I concluded by noting that what brings us together at this conference is that we all find meaning and purpose in this work that we do with undergraduate students.

Over the next few days several members of the audience thanked me because my comments had resonated with their view of liberal education.

Wofford’s mission is to “prepares its students for extraordinary and positive contributions to society… to [foster] excellence in character, performance, leadership, service to others and life-long learning.” We understand that an excellent liberal education builds cognitive abilities that include moral reasoning skills, so as to move our students from the self-centeredness of adolescence (e.g., students seek a college degree so that they can earn more money) toward a deeper understanding and empathetic commitment to others, regardless of their gender, race, ethnicity, religious worldview, or socioeconomic status (e.g., students are motivated to learn so they can address civic and even global problems).

The AGLS award celebrates our institution’s commitment to the pursuit and achievement of excellence. Our new Biology program – now in its fourth year – was developed through a respectful collaboration that is the norm at Wofford but all too rare across the Academy. Our work resulted from a partnership among faculty members and students with the support and trust we needed from our administration and Trustees. We were given room to take risks, and we persevered through several years filled with extra work, anxiety, and a few disappointments. In the end, we achieved real and positive transformation to our program.

Moreover, we took on this task not because our program was in jeopardy: Biology is the largest major in the College; we serve over half of all incoming students; and our majors make up over 20% of each graduating class. Our students are even accepted into professional and graduate programs at rates envied by institutions across the country.

Instead, we took on the difficult task because we recognized that we needed to make best use of what is now known about how students learn and what science competencies our graduates will need in the coming decades. And like our colleagues across the College, we won’t stop now. At Wofford there is no static endpoint where excellence is defined. It will always be a goal to pursue, with untarnished honor.

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