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Liberal Education – Now More Than Ever?

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

Panelists during AAC&U’s Centennial Symposium provided many reasons why a liberal education matters.  Many of their comments were couched in terms of economic needs, but they also stressed importance of education beyond securing job.  The economy is not dependent on repetitive tasks or office or factory floor work—it has been transformed and is changing rapidly.  How do we prepare students to be productive in a global, pluralistic society? How can we make education fully inclusive?  The ability of our students to listen, learn, and collaborate becomes critical. How can liberal education be structured so that scaffolding results in increased levels of skills and adequate time for reflection in order that students decide who they are and what they want to be?  They need freedom and personal responsibility, and the space to learn from one another.

Troubling issues confront liberal education, including inequality and the uneven preparation for college. College, the very gateway to success, is unaffordable for many.  On the "elite" end, students don't know what they need, only what they want—they can become customers and consumers, and the customer is always right. Facing such obstacles, it is difficult to demonstrate the value of a liberal education—a value that is often only evident over time. Sometimes making the case for college is not easy.  Economic segregation and a push to professionally oriented education are two strong forces facing those arguing for the importance of a liberal education.  

In order to present the case for liberal education we must be armed with specifics. We must recognize that cognitive skills are not a complete toolkit.  The classroom is only one element of an educational experience—out-of-class experiences can be an integral part of an overall educational experience. Liberal education is perhaps embodied best in stories such as those from Mount Holyoke College about the academic, work, and community experiences of its students in the real world. Our challenge is to incorporate more practical problem solving in real-world settings as part of our educational systems while also searching for other ideas and bringing them to scale. The LEAP initiative is a beginning but by no means an end.