This Generous Room: Making the Luxury of a Liberal Education the Experience of All
William J. Craft is president of Concordia College and chair of AAC&U’s board of directors.
As she welcomed people to the opening plenary of AAC&U’s annual meeting this January, outgoing board chair Carol Leary paused, looked out at all of us, and said, “What a luxury to be in this room.” That unrehearsed moment has had me thinking ever since.
My immediate thought was that Carol’s sense of blessing must be one reason for her remarkable twenty-five-year run as president of Bay Path University in Massachusetts. And then my thoughts moved to my early days as a faculty member in AAC’s Cultural Legacies project (before AAC added the &U), up all night at conferences with other ardent curriculum reformers. Ever since, AAC&U has been, for me, not only an advocate for the “vitality and public standing of liberal education.”1 It has been my own second liberal education, and perhaps my best. A luxury for sure.
On a recent Saturday, I was in another room—this time on Concordia College’s campus in Moorhead, Minnesota—that posed the question of luxury more sharply. With Concordia’s enrollment staff, I gathered to hear the stories of families who had traveled more than two hundred miles from Minneapolis to the college, where their sons and daughters were finalists for full-ride scholarships marked for “promising urban leaders.”2 While their children were elsewhere on campus, the parents spoke of their pride in the promise of those young lives.
These were parents working twelve-hour shifts, some of them speaking little English and some having moved their families from refugee camps. These were parents who practiced what American poet Robert Hayden called “love’s austere and lonely offices.”3 Their children have held jobs themselves for the family’s sake; these students have also, nearly all of them, chosen to teach younger children in their communities in the hours off from school and work. The parents talked of their children’s love of reading, their curiosity, their love of music, their impatience at injustice, and their longing to change their lives and change the world.
In that same room a year before, a mother had told us, in Spanish, that she worked two jobs, six days a week, and that she was proud of her son because he’d told her that he wanted to go to college so that she wouldn’t have to do that anymore.
AAC&U aims to make “quality and equity the foundations for excellence in undergraduate education in service to democracy.”4 It is worth remembering that this goal rests on a vision of equal human dignity and community, a vision that all too often doesn’t prevail in America—or elsewhere in the world. Paul Tough’s book on The Years That Matter Most makes plain that our higher education system remains tilted to advance the already privileged, excluding many who yearn for its benefits.5
My father finished high school in 1941 at age seventeen, and like his father before him, went into the mills in western Pennsylvania. A year later, encouraged by his teachers and his pastor, he left the assembly line and hitchhiked to State College, got himself registered, and began his new education just as his draft notice arrived. He jumped into the war as a B-24 navigator, and then returned—very lucky to be alive—to finish his baccalaureate on the GI Bill. I love to tell his story, but the postwar generosity that lifted up his life needs to become the American norm.
As Shaun Harper, executive director of the Race and Equity Center at the University of Southern California, reminded us on the annual meeting’s opening night, getting students in isn’t enough. 6 Once enrolled, too many confront barriers and endure indignities, off campus and on, that belie our earnest rhetoric of inclusion.
And there are other barriers. In the midst of one of the AAC&U board's regular debates about the nature of liberal education, a college president stood up and said, “There are students on my campus who don’t have enough food to eat.” It stopped us all mid-sentence, as it should have.
If higher education is to be both an individual benefit and a public good, our colleges must be places where we all move from the inside out: from untested assumptions to the possibility of changed minds, from self to neighbor, from private ambitions to communal strength. American novelist Marilynne Robinson has written that “community . . . consists very largely of imaginative love for people we do not know or whom we know very slightly.”7 College needs to be for all its students—regardless of their age or stage in life—a place where such imaginative love can be learned and practiced in all its human complexity.
The luxury Carol Leary invoked is also, it turns out, a necessity. AAC&U seeks to lead not only in declaring the dignity and community of our shared enterprise but also in making those virtues real across our campuses. The American poet Sara Teasdale once wrote of gratitude for time spent with friends in a “generous room.”8 We must create that room together as we advance the vitality of liberal education. It is worth a life’s work.
2. This is part of a program called Act Six. At Concordia, ten students receive the full-ride scholarships each year; all finalists receive substantial awards. It is one of various access programs that bring first-generation, low-income students to the college. For more on Act Six, see https://www.actsix.org/mw/twincities/.
3. Robert Hayden, “Those Winter Sundays,” Collected Poems of Robert Hayden, ed. Frederick Glaysher (Liveright Publishing Corporation, 1985). Reprinted by the Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46461/those-winter-sundays.
4. “Mission & Strategic Plan.”
5. Paul Tough, The Years That Matter Most (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019).
6. Professor Harper gave the 2020 Carol Geary Schneider Lecture on Liberal Education and Inclusive Excellence at AAC&U’s Annual Meeting, January 22–25 in Washington, DC.
7. Marilynne Robinson, “Imagination and Community,” in When I Was a Child I Read Books: Essays (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2012), 21.
8. “Grace Before Sleep,” in The Collected Poems of Sara Teasdale (New York: Macmillan, 1959), 211. Teasdale, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1918, merits more attention.