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Meeting Higher Expectations

In his book Higher Expectations, released last month, two-time Harvard president Derek Bok explores what it should mean to be liberally educated in the twenty-first century. Reminding us that the last great reform in higher education came in response to the demands for practical knowledge in a rapidly industrialized world, Bok details trends over the past century that have led to the fragmentation of the curriculum into increasingly specialized courses; an emphasis on the coverage of subject matter rather than the development of competence and intellectual mastery; a lack of assessment to measure progress and ensure accountability; and the widespread reduction of general education programs to distribution models that simply require students to obtain a breadth of learning by choosing a stipulated number of courses from the humanities, sciences, and social sciences. He contends that during the twentieth century, the absence of clear objectives related to meeting the needs of students and society meant that, for the most part, faculty taught whatever they chose. Yet, Bok is adamant that preparing students for the future necessitates engaging faculty in a common understanding of what the curriculum is meant to achieve, while directly confronting the issue of whether colleges and universities are successful in developing the competencies and qualities students will need to succeed. 

Indeed, given the size and scope of the unprecedented challenges colleges and universities are confronting today, Bok calls for a radical reimagining of higher education, grounded in AAC&U's Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative. This twenty-first-century vision for liberal education requires rethinking educational purposes and practices to better prepare students for global interdependence, innovation in the workplace, civic engagement, complexity, and rapid change. The key elements in a framework for high-quality learning include widely expected learning outcomes, high-impact practices that foster achievement and completion, evidence on what works for underserved students, and authentic assessments that raise and reveal the levels of learning.  

There is already broad consensus across all sectors of higher education—two-year, four-year, public, private—on the learning and skills students need the most. Developed in collaboration with college and university leaders at all levels, business and industry CEOs, and legislators, the essential learning outcomes—knowledge and competencies that all colleges should teach and that all undergraduates should acquire—are:

  1. Knowledge of human cultures and the physical and natural world, gained through study in the sciences and mathematics, social sciences, humanities, histories, languages, and the arts.
  2. Intellectual and practical skills, including competencies of inquiry and analysis, critical and creative thinking, written and oral communication, quantitative literacy, information literacy, teamwork, and problem-solving—practiced extensively across the curriculum, in the context of progressively more challenging problems, projects, and standards of performance.
  3. Personal and social responsibility, including civic knowledge and engagement (local and global), intercultural knowledge and competence, ethical reasoning and action, and foundations and skills for lifelong learning—anchored through active involvement with diverse communities and real-world challenges.
  4. Integrative and applied learning, including synthesis and advanced accomplishment across general and specialized studies demonstrated through the application of knowledge, skills, and responsibilities to new settings and complex problems.

Employers strongly endorse these essential learning outcomes and urge new efforts to help all students achieve them. Citing innovation, critical thinking, and a broad skill set as keys for meeting challenges in the workplace,

  • 95 percent of employers report that their companies place a priority on hiring people with the intellectual and interpersonal skills to help them contribute to innovation in the workplace;
  • 93 percent of employers say that a candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major; and
  • 91 percent of employers say that all students, whatever their major, should have experiences in solving problems with colleagues whose views are different from their own.   

Thus, narrow learning is overwhelmingly rejected in favor of having both field-specific knowledge and skills and a broad range of skills and knowledge.   

Bok appeals to these findings in his proposal for reinvigorating general education, emphasizing the creation of a curriculum that both prepares students for the twenty-first-century economy and shapes their character and outlook. In the process, he foregrounds “‘teamwork,’ ‘ethical action’ (not just ethical reasoning), ‘intercultural competence,’  ‘foundations and skills for lifelong learning,’” and the skills underlying these outcomes, such as “conflict resolution, leadership, a capacity to interpret ‘intercultural experience from [one’s] own and more than one world view, and an ability . . .  to understand and develop individual purpose, values, and ethics.’” Bok contends that faculty need to create deliberate opportunities for students to work together on problems, developing the skills of listening attentively to team members, contributing creative ideas, engaging in trust-building behaviors, resolving conflicts, and engaging in peer teaching. He notes that “underlying all these qualities is . . . ‘the perception that one’s own success is not possible unless others succeed (and vice versa) and that group members’ work benefits one’s own and one’s own work benefits them.’”

Higher Expectations invites faculty and administrators at colleges and universities of all types to consider how we will use this pivotal moment in the history of higher education to innovate, embrace new pedagogies, and disrupt existing structures that mitigate against the transformation necessary to position students for success in work, citizenship, and life. As AAC&U continues to build on the work of our LEAP initiative, we look forward to working with our members in continuing to lead the way.

Lynn Pasquerella is president of AAC&U.

Have an idea for a blog post? Write to dedman@aacu.org.

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