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Call It What It Is: Liberal Education

When I think about the value of higher education, the term “marine heatwave” comes to mind. Not because higher education is remotely like a marine heatwave, though I’m sure a more skilled writer could come up with a metaphorical connection. It’s because marine heatwaves need higher education.

More specifically, they need liberal education.

Marine heatwaves are oceanic temperature changes confined to a particular area and with devastating effects on the surrounding plant and animal life. Scientists are scrambling to understand how to respond, and not just because these heatwaves are so spectacularly harmful. They are scrambling because just a few years ago the term simply didn’t exist.

It’s easy to say a new scientific problem needs higher education. After all, that’s where the scientists come from! But I would argue that to confront marine heatwaves, to solve that problem, requires a specific type of higher education. Liberal education forefronts students’ development of broad skills in combination with deep learning. That means practicing and applying skills like critical thinking, problem solving, and creative thinking alongside the theories, methodologies, and content knowledge that come with disciplinary training. These skills, in combination with content, develop students’ ability to tackle unknown problems, create new knowledge, and be cutting-edge innovators and problem solvers that will thrive in future societies, not just the one they graduate into.

The various parts of a liberal education make sense to just about everyone. For example, even if people don’t know exactly how to define critical thinking, most think it’s a valuable skill. Employer and market research consistently bear out the importance of broad skills such as oral communication, teamwork, critical and analytical reasoning, and ethical judgment.

Something is almost always left out when discussing the declining public trust in higher education: for decades, the public trust in almost every major public institution has been declining. One of the commonalities within our divided country is our collective distrust of just about everything. While it’s true that Republicans rank the value of higher education lower than Democrats, higher education still ranks among the most highly trusted public institutions.

The only problem people seem to have with liberal education is the name. In today’s partisan world, “liberal education” evokes an agenda driven by a left-leaning professoriate enabled by similarly minded administrators. Never mind that the term is rooted in the ancient Greek approach to education focused on the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy). Educational philosopher John Dewey (1859–1952) championed liberal education at a time of immense social and economic change and innovation. The industrial revolution had transformed how work was done, how people lived, and how power was realized, with unprecedented levels of global interdependence and discord. Not unlike today.

Historical references are little solace at a time when higher education is increasingly on the defensive. Even if a college or university actively constructs a liberal education curriculum and cocurriculum, would they really say this is what they do? Can institutions of higher learning risk whiffs of partisanship, given the waning public trust in higher education? At AAC&U, we believe they can. And, even more, we would say they should. As the leading higher education association dedicated to the ideals of liberal education, we have been politely invited by colleagues to reconsider using the term and replace it with something less subject to politicization. We have heard from dedicated colleagues who will not use the term openly in campus materials or with boards of trustees.

Our response is that no other term will do. The root of liberal is liber, Latin for “freedom.” The word “liberal” underscores the beauty and value of an education that emphasized the freeing of one’s mind. The point is not to take in information to think just as others think but to invite students to discover the ways in which they think. The freedom to discover, create, and innovate is what liberal education produces. The opposite of liberal education is not a “conservative” education. It is illiberal education, one that is not free. The absence of freedom of thought and the presence of political indoctrination, whether liberal or conservative, is illiberal. As Maya Angelou once said, “In so many ways, segregation shaped me, and education liberated me.”

In AAC&U’s new vision, we are doubling down on our mission and “liberal” education. Rather than retreating to alternative language, we are embracing what it means to support the unequivocal freedom of every student who enters college, whether they attend a public university, a community college, an HBCU, or a private liberal arts college.

Our vast racial, economic, and social divides mean that huge swaths of the population (especially students of color, first-generation students, and low-income students) will miss the chance to go to college. That is not only a loss for those individuals; it is a loss for all of the problems that will go unsolved without their brainpower. As Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “No country, however rich, can afford the waste of its human resources.”

Every time we miss the opportunity to educate students because of their skin color, because they lack the social capital to navigate college, because they can’t afford it, or because of our ideological differences, another marine heatwave goes unanswered.

Ashley Finley is senior advisor to the president and vice president for strategic planning and partnerships at AAC&U.