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February 25, 2009

To the Editor,

Patricia Cohen raises many important issues in her article on the humanities (“In Tough Times…”, February 24, 2009). Unfortunately, however, she reproduces a familiar and obfuscating “either-or” model for discussing college learning in today’s world. The report from the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) that Cohen quotes, College Learning for the New Global Century, makes clear that liberal education—as it is being reinvented by colleges all across the country—can, indeed, prepare students for professional success, responsible citizenship, and fulfilling lives. It isn’t one or the other of these outcomes.

The report quoted in Patricia Cohen's article spoke not just to the humanities, but to all the disciplines and the entire undergraduate curriculum. Through its work on Liberal Education and America’s Promise or “LEAP,” AAC&U emphasizes the need to help students learn how to connect their college learning with real-world problems, examined choices, and responsible action both in their personal lives and in their working lives.

A century ago, when only five percent of the population went to college, the connections among work, citizenship, and higher learning applied to very few. But, as President Obama made clear in his address to Congress, all Americans now need college-level learning. We have an unprecedented opportunity, then, to provide every one of our students with an education that connects their studies—including studies in the humanities—to the lives they will lead beyond graduation—as citizens, as workers, and as thoughtful human beings.

To date, however, we are falling far short of this aspiration. The federal Department of Education's own studies show that first generation students take fewer courses than others in the humanities, the sciences, the social sciences, the arts, mathematics, and even computer technology. When this is the case, we are depriving millions of college students of the fundamental knowledge they need to make sense of the wider world.

A college education—whether students major in the humanities, the sciences, or a technical field—needs to prepare graduates to deal with the complex societal, practical, and ethical question they will encounter in every sphere of life. It is not a choice between personal development on the one hand and pre-professional education on the other. Rather, AAC&U is calling on all educators to recognize that the development of personal and civic capabilities is fundamental to the preparation of engaged citizens and responsible professionals.


Carol Geary Schneider
Association of American Colleges and Universities