The LEAP Challenge Blog

Worth Reviving: Goals for Liberal Education from the “Greatest Generation”

Higher education looms ever larger in the national consciousness, but unhappily, the public discussion about the purposes of higher learning grows ever more emaciated.   Both under Presidents Bush and Obama, this discussion has become far too narrow and technocratic.  “It’s the economy, stupid” seems somehow to have become “It’s the economy, so go narrow!”

If you read this blog, you likely already know the AAC&U “take” on college learning.  Today’s students need a liberal education because that is the only degree plan that addresses all the essential aims of college study: preparation for work, citizenship, and a fulfilling life.  Liberal education does this by fostering “big picture” knowledge of human cultures and the natural world; high-level intellectual and practical skills; examined commitments to ethical and social responsibility; and the demonstrated ability to integrate and apply one’s knowledge, skills, and responsibilities to complex problems – problems in work, life and citizenship.

It’s a huge challenge, though, to break through an anxiety-fueled policy and public dialogue that too often treats college as, essentially, a twenty-first century version of trade school.   Public dialogues about higher education today are all about specific skills and preparation for work—usually just for graduates’ first (or, perhaps, second) job.  Democratic and global citizenship as equally important outcomes of college are rarely mentioned at all by those who command media and public attention.

It was not always thus.

This summer, I reread an important report from a more public-spirited era:  Higher Education for American Democracy was issued by the Truman Commission and was a report set in motion right after World War II and written, of course, by members of the so-called “Greatest Generation.”  This is what our national leaders said in 1947 about the overarching aims of college learning.

The authors of the Truman Commission report note that the “principal goals” of higher education are “to bring to all the people of the Nation: education for a fuller realization of democracy in every phase of living; education directly and explicitly for international understanding and cooperation; and education for the application of creative imagination and trained intelligence to the solution of social problems.”  The report also notes that, in 1947 “college programs are not contributing adequately to….students’ adult lives either as workers or as citizens. This is…because the unity of liberal education has been splintered.” They note further that, “general education undertakes to redefine liberal education in terms of life’s problems… [and] the service of democracy.  It extends to all men the benefits of an education that liberates.”

They called for new approaches to general education to ensure that everyone would benefit from the power and value of liberal education.

Can you imagine any public leader (outside of higher education itself) making comments like this today?

And, if you can’t, isn’t it time for all of us to force these ideas—in their entirety—back into the public debate?