Liberal Education Needs Integration, Not Unbundling

By Rebecca Pope-Ruark

College Made Whole: Integrative Learning for a Divided World by Chris W. Gallagher. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019.

My shelves and reading list are well stocked with books defending the honor of US higher education, especially those that focus on the value and worth of a liberal education. Each season, new arguments arrive from higher education luminaries and—more recently and unexpectedly—from venture capitalists and technology industry leaders, each making their cases for the cultural and practical necessity of some version of liberal education in the face of multiple threats: increasingly sparse public funding, government encroachment on institutional autonomy, predatory for-profit institutions, and technology companies claiming to democratize higher education because “learning can happen anywhere”—if you have a good internet connection and a credit card.

I approach these texts like many others in higher education, as a member of the choir, perhaps looking more for validation than for next steps, weary in the face of the constant onslaught. I expected from College Made Whole a similar condemnation of the for-profit, technology-driven credentialing organizations now proliferating. I was not wrong. Gallagher articulates and then destroys the arguments “unbundlers” make about the future of a decentralized and capitalistic postsecondary marketplace. But I wasn’t completely right either, because Gallagher’s call for integrative learning, essentially the opposite of unbundling, also takes measured aim at the flaws in traditional higher education, provides examples of institutions enacting change, and offers specific suggestions for institutions and faculty to create and facilitate opportunities for integrating experiences across college and university curricula.

Gallagher calls Kevin Carey (the author of The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere) and Ryan Craig (the author of College Disrupted: The Great Unbundling of Higher Education) his “primary interlocutors.” He paints them and other “unbundlers” as corporate shills who consider education a commodity to be atomized into the smallest component parts useful for job-readiness and distributed impersonally through technology to serve targeted customers—that is, students—and stockholders. The version of higher education that Gallagher sees Carey, Craig, and others promoting is one with business problems that businesspeople can solve rather than educational challenges that faculty and other higher education professionals can address. It’s capitalism masquerading as democratization, an attempt to replace a flawed existing system with an open market of profit-driven “providers” who offer any number of credentials, microcredentials, and certificates with no grounding in educational theory or concern for the public good, no quality control over the learning experiences offered or who “teaches” them, and no meaningful connections between learning experiences in this grab bag of choices.

While the unbundlers claim that this highly accessible and vocational marketplace of “stackable credentials” will open higher education to anyone at any time, Gallagher dissents: “Unbundling higher education . . . is exactly the wrong solution [to increasing costs and disparity]. It will exacerbate stratification and inequality, leaving individuals who lack cultural and economic capital vulnerable to predatory practices in a deregulated market and undermining our collective capacity to confront the social, cultural, and economic challenges that beset us.”

He considers a wide range of perspectives to counter the arguments for unbundling: John Dewey’s original definitions and characteristics of experiential learning; research on how learning actually works; the role of relationships between students and faculty in learning success, especially for first-generation and socioeconomically vulnerable learners; employer demands for well-rounded employees like those who have been educated liberally, in the philosophical rather than the political sense; existing racial, socioeconomic, and gender disparities in credentials earned; and the excessive hype surrounding buzzwords like adaptive learning.

But Gallagher’s book is not simply an attack on unbundlers. He dismantles the unbundlers’ claims, but he devotes just as much time to teasing out the flaws that leave US higher education vulnerable to this disruption and to describing the steps that institutions and faculty could take to promote integrative learning. He does not ignore the claims that US higher education today is too expensive, too insular, too exclusive, too outdated, and too divorced from reality. On the contrary, he offers incisive critiques of the current system that only someone with a deep appreciation of the academy could provide.

Gallagher argues that protecting the status quo in our colleges and universities, where learning is loosely bundled and mostly disaggregated, is not the solution to fending off critics who see the future of higher education in deregulated credentialing. For Gallagher, the opposite of unbundling is not the status quo but integration, in Dewey’s sense of the word: “Colleges and universities will need to offer learners more and more diverse learning opportunities in a wider variety of formats and modalities in more places over longer periods of time—all while becoming more, not less, coherent. In short, they need to integrate themselves to facilitate integrated learning.”

Colleges and universities must dedicate themselves to integration to survive and help students thrive in the unpredictable future before us. The new role of the university is to offer more options to achieve the master credential of a degree, as well as additional credentials over one’s lifetime. The role of the faculty is to help students chart a meaningful course through an intentionally selected variety of learning experiences, traditional and nontraditional, while helping them make meaningful connections that inform their choices about future experiences, careers, and roles as citizens. He doubles down on the idea that a university education is a set of relationships and experiences rather than a product: it should provide a space in which faculty members using integrative education practices guide learners through experiences that are interdependent, connected, and integrated with one another. And he clearly articulates how both institutions and faculty can create this new culturally relevant and needed version of higher education to serve all learners.

The early chapters in College Made Whole set up the key “them-against-us” pattern of the book, with the unbundlers as the enemies of higher education. In the preface, Gallagher shares his own college experience, which he describes as “fine,” and compares it to that of a student named Danielle, who is, with faculty guidance, expertly combining courses, cocurricular activities, internships, and cooperative experiences to add depth and breadth to her base of knowledge and skill set in preparation for an exciting future that she is defining. In starting with this example, he illustrates that most colleges and universities do not create integrative learning opportunities well and sets up his main argument that integrative learning, not unbundling, is the path forward. He builds on this idea in the introduction and chapter 1, where he takes aim at the arguments in favor of unbundling. He responds to those arguments by drawing on history and research on US higher education, not shying away from current debates about existential crises facing the academy and arguing that we must return to higher education as a public good.

The core chapters each begin with a narrative about a student—or, in one case, a faculty member’s experience—and then break down ideological positions through argument and counterargument. Chapter 2 unpacks the unbundlers’ claim that general liberal education requirements are “useless” luxuries unnecessary for pursuing vocational goals. Chapter 3 responds to the bundler mantra that learning does happen everywhere, arguing that place and context matter in true learning and integration. Chapter 4 takes up the insidious internal divisions between liberal education and preprofessional training and between the arts and STEM disciplines, easy targets for unbundlers focused on a narrow mission of skills-oriented job-readiness. Chapter 5 explores the unbundlers’ techno-utopia, where technology handles all content delivery, reducing the work of faculty members to a series of discrete roles on an assembly line that will lead to improved equity and access. Finally, in chapter 6, Gallagher takes down what is likely the most pernicious of the unbundlers’ arguments: that nondegree credentialing will democratize access to higher education by providing some components of it at a fraction of the cost of a traditional degree.

As these chapters deconstruct the unbundlers’ agenda and draw out the exploitable tensions in higher education, each also inspires hope by offering examples of US colleges and universities that have already developed integrative learning initiatives. Champlain College has vertically integrated its interdisciplinary core curriculum, adding liberal arts approaches as an important foundation to its specialized preprofessional programs; Guttman Community College in New York City has embedded “field experiences” in local communities throughout the curriculum; and the University of California, Davis, has programs that combine traditional courses and experiences with digital competency badges as part of an interdisciplinary degree. Gallagher also points to new initiatives at Stanford University, his own Northeastern University, and other institutions that link alternative credentials to degree programs for graduates and lifelong learners. These examples of integrative learning can be seen to combine the best of current traditional higher education practices with the potential of alternative credentialing to create opportunities for all types of learners, while still supporting them with foundations and relationships to make meaning from experiences.

Finally, Gallagher offers specific suggestions that administrators and faculty can take to move toward integrative learning as the primary value proposition of US higher education. For example, he argues that institutions should “organize themselves to enter into lifelong relationships with learners” by creating a collection of learning experiences for alumni that relate to and complement the degree requirements. They should approach advising with a “long-view and a wide-view” and invest in technologies to document and promote learning connections over time. He urges faculty to participate in discussions at their institutions about degrees and alternative credentialing; to develop degree programs that include optional supplemental credentials; and to draw upon their expertise in partnering with members of the community, potential employers, and even technology organizations to create meaningful learning experiences for students.

Of course, these recommended actions are not necessarily straightforward or easy to implement, because they challenge how we currently talk about, work in, and deliver higher education. They may not be inexpensive, but they are concrete ideas to start productive discussions in departments, schools, and colleges and universities.

College Made Whole does belong in the “books-defending-higher-education” space on our shelves and reading lists. I appreciated Gallagher’s balanced approach to a polarizing topic—an approach at once firm in its rejection of the unbundling argument, objective in the face of higher education’s flaws, and hopeful about the path forward.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark is a faculty teaching and learning specialist in the Center for Teaching and Learning at the Georgia Institute of Technology. She was on the faculty at Elon University for twelve years before moving into faculty development. She is the author of Agile Faculty: Practical Strategies for Managing Research, Service, and Teaching and co-editor of the forthcoming Redesigning Liberal Education: Innovative Design for a Twenty-First-Century Undergraduate Education. Her email address is [email protected].