The LEAP Challenge Blog

Letter to the Editor of The Federalist: Re: How Liberal Education Became Illiberal

The following essay was written by AAC&U President Carol Geary Schneider in response to an article about liberal education, published in The Federalist, that featured incomplete and misleading quotations from AAC&U’s published materials.

December 7, 2015

To the Editor of The Federalist,

In the recent article you published, “How Liberal Education Became Illiberal,” Kevin J. Daley grossly misrepresents the work of the Association of American Colleges and Universities and its vision for liberal education.  Building on the long tradition of liberal education—both its enduring values and its changing focus over time—AAC&U, in concert with its 1,350 member institutions, have developed a widely shared, very clear definition of liberal education appropriate for American higher education in the twenty-first century.  Unfortunately, Daley quoted a tiny fraction of that definition in highly misleading ways.

We have defined a liberal education as:

“An approach to learning that empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change. It provides students with broad knowledge of the wider world (e.g. science, culture, and society) as well as in-depth study in a specific area of interest. A liberal education helps students develop a sense of social responsibility, as well as strong and transferable intellectual and practical skills such as communication, analytical and problem-solving skills, and a demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings.

The broad goals of liberal education have been enduring even as the courses and requirements that comprise a liberal education have changed over the years. Today, a liberal education usually includes a general education curriculum that provides broad learning in multiple disciplines and ways of knowing, along with more in-depth study in a major.”

We also define a twenty-first-century liberal education very precisely in terms of a set of widely endorsed “Essential Learning Outcomes” that include such tried and true areas of liberal learning as “ethical reasoning and action,” “written and oral communication,” “inquiry and analysis,” etc. 

Contrary to what Daley suggests, there is no “confusion as to the definition of liberal education”—at least on the part of AAC&U’s members.  In fact, a recent survey of our members revealed a clear consensus about the enduring importance of these “Essential Learning Outcomes.” 

It is also completely inaccurate and disingenuous of Daley to suggest that AAC&U has “not the slightest interest in the elevation of moral life” or “those permanent questions that are the wellspring of liberal learning.”  In fact, we have supported numerous meetings and projects focused on ensuring that today’s college students are gaining “knowledge of human cultures and the physical and natural world”— and doing so by “engagement with big questions, both contemporary and enduring.”  If Daley had done his homework, he would have found all this quite clearly articulated on our website, and in literally hundreds of publications we have released over the past decade.

Daley seems either ignorant of or willfully ignoring the clarity, complexity, and power of AAC&U’s vision of liberal education.  In our signature 2007 report, College Learning for the New Global Century, for instance, we noted further that “Throughout history, liberal education…[has] been a constant resource, not just for civic life but for the inner life of self-discovery, values, moral inspiration, spiritual quests and solace, and the deep pleasures of encountering beauty, insight, and expressive power…serious engage[ment] with questions of values, principles, and larger meanings…marks the essential difference between instrumental learning and liberal learning.”

Daley also is completely wrong to imply that our community has abandoned the enduring principles of liberal education that have made it such a powerful educational force in our country.  In fact, AAC&U has an official Board of Directors “Statement on Liberal Learning” that notes, in part, “Liberal education requires that we understand the foundations of knowledge and inquiry about nature, culture, and society; that we master core skills of perception, analysis, and expression; that we cultivate a respect for truth; that we recognize the importance of historical and cultural context; and that we explore connections among formal learning, citizenship, and service to our communities.”  The statement goes on to note that “we experience the benefits of liberal learning by pursuing intellectual work that is honest, challenging, and significant, and by preparing ourselves to use knowledge and power in responsible ways.”  I would be curious to know how Daley could interpret this vision as “suffering from a lack of tradition.”

In an essay purportedly about “liberal education,” your readers deserve better fact-checking.  They deserve to know what the leading association devoted to this subject is actually saying and doing to advance liberal education in higher education today.

Respectfully yours,

Carol Geary Schneider

President, Association of American Colleges and Universities