Liberal Education

The AAC&U Centennial as a "House Mountain" Opportunity

We commemorate the Centennial of AAC&U during a challenging time for higher education. We face questions of access, equity, college ratings, completion rates, return on investment, student debt, online education, the promise of technology, the perils of technology—the list could easily be much longer. The cover of the September 2014 issue of The Atlantic depicted a wrecking ball blasting through ivy-covered walls with the bold-faced headline, “Is College Doomed?” About the same time, The Economist weighed in on the “welcomed disruption” facing higher education.

But the story of higher education today is more about confusion than disruption—confusion about the purposes and values of higher education and its role in society. There are few voices speaking with clarity in the midst of the din. In that respect, at least, the Centennial of AAC&U comes at a fortuitous time. I worry with many others about the velocity of communication and the reduction of complex and nuanced topics to overly simplistic formulations. We have too few reasons to pause, step back, and regain perspective. This issue of Liberal Education offers such an opportunity. There will be others throughout the year as AAC&U considers its past and, more important, its future.

Imagine for a moment how higher education looked in 1915—who went to college; who taught there; what they taught; the public policy environment; the economic model; its role in our economy and our democracy. Much has changed, and much for the better. Our student bodies are more diverse. Our institutions and their missions are more diverse. Curricular offerings have far more breadth. We have a greater understanding of pedagogy and how students learn. But the evolution has not been without its stress and without the ebb and flow of failure along with success. And we have more to accomplish.

What has not changed, however, is the constancy of liberal education. It has served as AAC&U’s guiding star. We each have our favorite ways of expressing it, but I find it captured so well and concisely by Carol Geary Schneider in the interview published in this issue of Liberal Education: “The enduring goals, to my mind, are the following: fostering the broad knowledge—of history, culture, science, and society—one needs to navigate and provide leadership in the wider world; developing the powers of the mind to make reasoned judgments about complex and difficult questions; and cultivating a sense of ethical and societal responsibility—obligations to self and others.”

If AAC&U has served one overriding purpose these last one hundred years, it has been to elevate the discussion of higher education by reminding all constituencies that student learning is central to everything we do, and that while students acquire their own personal benefits from greater education, the public good is also served by having an educated, informed, and responsible citizenry.

Along with the privilege of serving as chair of the AAC&U Board of Directors during this time, I also have the privilege of serving as president of one of the nation’s oldest universities. When I speak with our students, I sometimes call upon my own institution’s past and the lessons it provides for the future. In 1839, for example, one of my predecessors, Henry Ruffner, published a novel titled Judith Bensadi. One passage describes a group of students who hiked House Mountain, a local landmark visible on the horizon from almost any point on our campus. The mountain “hides the setting sun and not infrequently turns the summer showers that come from the west wind. . . . It stands like an island of the air, with its huge body and sharp angles to cut the current of the winds asunder.” From their perch atop the mountain, the students looked down upon the “little homesteads that spotted the hills and valleys under the mountain, the large farms and country seats farther away, and the bright group of buildings in the village of Lexington.” It was a vista that “relieved the mind from the painful sublimity of the distant prospect and prepared us, after hours of delightful contemplation, to descend from our aerial height and return with gratified feelings to our college and our studies again.”

Our Centennial provides a House Mountain opportunity, not only to reflect, not only to achieve that perspective that only some distance can provide, but also to return to our work in the years ahead, indeed in the century ahead. We do so with gratitude for AAC&U’s leadership over the years. As you read through the seminal essays in this issue of Liberal Education, try to imagine, as I did, the ones still to come, as higher education enters yet another challenging period; and be thankful, as I am, for a clear and enduring voice promoting liberal education, excellence, equity, and access to all for the benefits that higher education provides.

Kenneth P. Ruscio is the president of Washington and Lee University and chair of the Board of Directors of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Previous Issues