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Asking the Big Questions

By David Brakke, Dean of the College of Science and Mathematics, James Madison University

What is the purpose of education?  Why liberal education?

Throughout AAC&U’s Centennial Symposium and the Centennial Annual Meeting, various speakers tried to answer these challenging questions. Some provided historical context while others were framing the questions in terms of the current economy. Carol Geary Schneider spoke of multiple goals for twenty-first-century education in a complex and rapidly changing economy. She talked about dealing with ambiguity and preparing students for the communities in which they will belong.  In his keynote talk and opening plenary, Eric Liu asked three questions: Who is us? What is liberal education for? And is democracy done? The answer to "who is us" is rapidly changing, and identity fundamentalism is rampant in many parts of the world. How we educate the new “us” is critical.  For Liu, not everything can be counted and valued in a market. Responsibility is liberty and every college is a college of democracy—for country and for citizenship. But Liu does not believe democracy is done—in fact, his talk suggested he is very positive about the future. He believes America has a competitive advantage for several reasons, including the American identity and the possibility of being good stewards of democracy. His faith in the future is underscored by the many examples he cited of heightened local citizenship.  

Ernest L. Boyer Award recipient Ira Harkavy provided a thorough, thoughtful, and insightful history of a vision of American Higher Education shared by Benjamin Franklin and Ernest Boyer. Harkavy provided keen insights into the thinking of both men and the development of the University of Pennsylvania in particular (founded by Franklin originally as the College of Philadelphia). Franklin saw service to society as the purpose of a university, and for Boyer, education is the foundation of democracy. Harkavy described the founding of the land grant universities and how their purpose was to be in educating and advancing society, with a high priority on solving problems in and with their communities.  He also spoke of John Dewey and how democracy begins at home. In the last part of his talk, Harkavy spoke about the impact of the University of Pennsylvania on West Philadelphia through “servant leadership,” a method of community engagement in which one must realize the difference between power and authority and appreciate the value of listening. Harkavy extended this concept to the broader community, saying you build community by building bridges and then you learn, live well, and give back to the community.  

A short blog post cannot capture the richness of the opening plenary or Harkavy’s Boyer Award talk—they were two marvelous explorations of the role and meaning of the university. They also illustrated the powerful impact of the local while providing more global context. More on these big questions to come.