Liberal Education

Flying Blind into America's Global Headwinds?

The world grows hourly more interconnected, and the United States’s need for global acumen is expanding exponentially. Are these developments driving a new determination that education ought to include a clear and continuing focus on building Americans’ global sophistication, engagement, and language proficiencies?

At first glance, one might think the signs are positive. Policy leaders, who generally speak in terms of “global competition,” almost uniformly affirm that education is the key to our future and that expectations for learning, especially postsecondary learning, must rise. And as Charles King notes cogently in his highly informative article in these pages, it’s hard to find a college or university president who hasn’t long since declared his or her commitment to the expansion of global partners and learning opportunities for students.

But if we look “under the hood” of contemporary global fervor, we see troubling evidence that “global” is more invoked than ensured as a framing theme for college student learning.

We live in a world that faces daunting challenges—from issues related to sustainability, sustenance, health, poverty, literacy, and human dignity to issues related to self-determination, terrorist movements, displaced populations, and nativist responses. One might imagine, then, that policy leaders would work proactively to ensure that education, from school through college, is well designed to help graduates acquire such global learning outcomes as broad and comparative knowledge of global developments and cultures, language proficiency beyond English, direct experience with different cultures, and competence in working on critically important questions with people whose cultures and worldviews are different from one’s own.

Even to write that, however, is to invite chagrin. Policy leaders are not doing any of those things. Rather, their response to global developments has been to double down on fostering literacy in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), while giving no attention to fostering literacy about the diverse peoples and cultures for which (and with whom) we need to provide STEM-anchored solutions. Adding an “A” for the arts, STEM leaders have coined the term “STEAM” to signal the need for blended inquiry that connects cultural and creative studies with the sciences. But there are few signs that STEAM is gaining policy traction.

Charles King’s sobering analysis in this issue of “The Decline of International Studies” and the disinvestment in fields related to global sophistication puts the right label on the current approach: policy leaders seem to have decided that “flying blind” is both affordable and politically appealing in this latest season of US nativist reaction. He might have pointed out as well the recurring movements in Congress to defund selected social sciences, unless they contribute immediately, rather than over the long term, to “national security.” Federal support for the humanities and arts—disciplines that are absolutely critical to global insight and understanding—has long since been reduced to federal budget dust.

Leaders within the various quality assurance agencies are notably less contentious than our political leaders, but none of the regional accreditors has made a single move toward ensuring that college graduates exhibit knowledge, skills, experiences, and accomplishments related to global learning. Diversity and service learning have made their way into some of the quality frameworks. Expectations that students must be globally literate have not.

The same omissions also are conspicuous in the Common Core school reforms, which are focused on language arts, quantitative skills, and, of course, STEM. The much-touted new Common Core tests will discern whether students can read and analyze texts related to complex issues, including global issues. But there is no expectation anywhere in the Common Core standards that students will actually work analytically, collaboratively, and experientially on significant questions related to global developments. Given the complexity of the global challenges facing the United States, Americans will have to bring far more to the global commons than just reading skills.

By contrast, faculty and administrators in higher education have been way ahead of policy leaders in working to ensure that the curriculum and cocurriculum promote deep engagement with global issues. Dawn Whitehead’s article in this issue, based in part on AAC&U’s work over the past several years with colleges, universities, and community colleges in our ongoing Shared Futures initiative, shows the impressive inventiveness with which different kinds of institutions have made global learning a framing theme for their students.

But if higher education is leading the way, the flight plan is still a work in progress, at best. According to a 2009 survey of AAC&U members, knowledge about world cultures is a degree expectation for 68 percent of the institutions that reported having required learning outcomes for all students.1 Yet for every institution that has used global themes to frame students’ progress from first to final year, there are hundreds that still settle for the “one goal/one course” approach to global learning. Study abroad also is a widely touted goal but still involves less than 10 percent of all US college students.2

Students and employers recognize that these partial strategies are far from enough. When the Higher Educational Research Institute asked graduating seniors whether college had significantly increased their knowledge of global developments, only 28 percent reported that it had.3 In 2015, when Hart Research Associates asked college students which learning outcomes needed more emphasis, respondents indicated that both global and diversity learning should be more of a priority. Both in 2008 and in 2015, employers reported that college graduates knew less than they needed to know about the world around them.4

Student transcripts confirm the shortfall. Using federally gathered transcript evidence, Clifford Adelman reported over a decade ago that somewhere between 5 and 10 percent of college students had put together the kind of curriculum—four or more courses on global topics, language study, and cross-cultural experience—that would likely have made them globally proficient.5 Yet all college learners, not a mere fraction, will surely need global sophistication both as citizens and as workers in an economy fiercely buffeted by global headwinds.

What then, can college educators do to make global learning and accomplishment more pervasive? The LEAP Challenge, which AAC&U launched earlier this year, provides a potentially powerful way to foster global proficiency. It urges higher education to add a third, integrative strand to a college curriculum that currently requires both general and specialized studies. That third strand will be students’ own effortful work on a significant question that matters to the student and matters to society—an extended project we call “Signature Work.” Students will only be able to successfully complete a substantial applied learning project, of course, if they practice working on complex, cross-disciplinary questions frequently as they progress from their initial to final studies. Today, some 47 percent of college seniors already complete culminating work.6 AAC&U is calling on higher education to double that number.

Imagine if students’ preparation for Signature Work included a continuing focus on global challenges. First-year courses can be framed by global issues; then, as they progress in their studies, students can be asked—for example, in the context of developing an e-portfolio—to identify global issues that matter to them and show the assignments they completed that are related to them. By their senior year, whatever they choose as their Signature Work projects, students can be expected to place their chosen topics in a larger global and/or comparative societal context.

College alone cannot ensure students’ global orientation and proficiency. The foundations need to be laid in school. But higher education can and should send catalytic signals through the precollegiate pipeline by clarifying the kind of preparation that college applicants ought to have, and by making clear their intention to help all college students develop global sophistication and globally framed applied learning experiences.

In the twenty-first century, global savvy will require a truly cosmopolitan liberal education. None of our students should leave us without it.—CAROL GEARY SCHNEIDER


1. Hart Research Associates, Learning and Assessment: Trends in Undergraduate Education; A Survey Among Members of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2009), 4.

2. See Institute of International Education, Open Doors 2014: Report on International Educational Exchange (Washington, DC: Institute of International Education).

3. See Ashely Finley, Making Progress? What We Know about the Achievement of Liberal Education Outcomes (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2012), 10.

4. See Peter D. Hart Research Associates, How Should Colleges Assess and Improve Student Learning? Employers’ Views on the Accountability Challenge (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2008); Hart Research Associates, Falling Short? College Learning and Career Success (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2008).

5. See National Leadership Council for Liberal Education and America’s Promise, College Learning for the New Global Century (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2007), 8.

6. National Survey of Student Engagement, Bringing the Institution into Focus: Annual Results 2014 (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research, 2014), 41.


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