Liberal Education

AAC&U Has It Right: It's "Liberal Education"

EDITOR’S NOTE: After twenty-nine years of service, Carol Geary Schneider retired from the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) on June 30, 2016. Carol came to the association from the University of Chicago in 1987 and, as vice president, led several major AAC&U initiatives, including Engaging Cultural Legacies, Re-Forming Arts and Sciences Majors, and American Commitments: Diversity, Democracy, and Liberal Learning. She was appointed president in 1998. As president, Carol presided over an especially successful and consequential period in the association’s hundred-year history. The membership doubled, from 678 in 1998 to more than 1,350 in 2016; inclusive excellence was elevated to a mission-level commitment; and a robust vision for liberal education in the twenty-first century was developed and promoted through several major initiatives. In 2005, anticipating AAC&U’s centennial in 2015, Carol led the creation of the wide-ranging Liberal Education and America’s Promise initiative, which brings together several coordinated efforts to enact the association’s integrative vision for the renewal of undergraduate education and a vigorous public advocacy effort to build consensus on essential learning outcomes among educators, scholars, employers, accreditors, leaders of state systems, and members of the general public.

To mark Carol’s retirement, we invited four of her close collaborators to reflect on various aspects of her legacy for the association and, more broadly, for American higher education. The brief essays printed here begin to sketch the contours of that legacy, celebrating Carol’s ongoing work to ensure that liberal education is available to all students.


More than ever before in our nation’s history, there is alignment between what we in the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) call the Essential Learning Outcomes of undergraduate education (see sidebar page 39) and what the nation needs for its own flourishing. It is the broad, integrative knowledge and the higher-order intellectual and practical skills articulated in the Essential Learning Outcomes, in addition to knowledge and competence in liberal arts and/or professional disciplines, that employers have told us over and over in a series of surveys that they want more of from higher education in America1. To have a “liberal education” is to have both, and such an education is crucial not just for success in work but also for the reasoned and thoughtful civic participation our democracy requires and, we strongly believe, for “living fully and freely.”2

In our muddled and conflicted national discourse about what the goals of higher education should be, throughout her presidency Carol Geary Schneider has argued consistently and eloquently that the rallying vision of AAC&U and the watchword for excellence in American undergraduate education should be “liberal education,” not “liberal arts education”—and absolutely not “workforce development” stripped of the liberal learning a steadily increasing share of all, not just professional, workers must acquire and citizens must gain to play the roles our democracy envisions for them. The first critically important rhetorical and substantive public manifestation of this argument on her watch was the “Statement on Liberal Learning” adopted by the AAC&U Board of Directors in October 1998. The opening paragraph cuts to the chase:

A truly liberal education is one that prepares us to live responsible, productive, and creative lives in a dramatically changing world. It is an education that fosters a well-grounded intellectual resilience, a disposition toward lifelong learning, and an acceptance of responsibility for the ethical consequences of our ideas and actions. Liberal education requires that we understand the foundations of knowledge and inquiry about nature, culture, and society; that we master core skills of perception, analysis, and expression; that we cultivate a respect for truth; that we recognize the importance of historical and cultural context; and that we explore connections among formal learning, citizenship, and service to our communities.3

Liberal education goes beyond understanding of “the foundations of knowledge and inquiry about nature, culture, and society” to include skills, habits of mind, commitments to the commons and to values linked to living fully and freely.

Those advocating a liberal arts education, focused on the content of the traditional liberal arts disciplines, often just assume that the habits of mind and higher-order skills of liberal education will be achieved if one just studies liberal arts content using appropriate pedagogy. This is Georgia Nugent’s position in her recent lengthy defense of the liberal arts and liberal arts colleges,4 which does not once mention AAC&U’s national and international leadership in the cause of liberal education, even as a foil. But experience and growing evidence show that just studying liberal arts content using the right pedagogy isn’t enough;5 teachers of liberal arts courses must set liberal learning goals above and beyond content goals and devise assignments and practice designed to help students achieve them. The closest Nugent comes to being explicit about learning goals above and beyond content, as AAC&U does powerfully in its Essential Learning Outcomes, is to introduce a distinction between so-called “deep” and “surface” learning.6

At the same time, one can’t teach for liberal learning outcomes in the absence of content. It’s during the thoughtfully designed study of content that well-guided students also develop the habits of mind and skills of liberal education. Both are necessary.

To be sure, some content is closely linked to particular higher-order learning goals. To study literary criticism, for example, is to study a certain kind of critical thinking, but it isn’t necessarily about how to become a better critical thinker. Students will become better critical thinkers in literary criticism courses that include assignments and practice designed to improve critical thinking per se.

Others—most notably far too many federal and state political leaders—argue that a narrow, practical, applied, pre-professional and professional undergraduate education should be our national goal: “we have too many philosophers.” But students pursuing practical, job-oriented fields also need a liberal education, and one absolutely can develop the habits of mind and skills of liberal education in courses of study outside liberal arts disciplines if teachers intentionally include the learning goals of liberal education in their curricula and syllabi. This must happen if students today and in the future are to have the education they need for the twenty-first century. How can students in programs like undergraduate nursing not be expected to develop analytical skills, critical-thinking skills, written and oral communication skills, integrative and quantitative reasoning skills, real-world problem-solving skills, and ethical reasoning skills?

Deciding what we mean by quality in higher education is the most important decision we have to make as a profession and as a country. Everything follows from that. It is impossible to assess our performance, or whether higher education costs too much, if the goals for a quality college education are left unspecified. Carol saw this from the very beginning, and she argues persuasively that evidence is growing that more and more of America’s higher education stakeholders get this argument too and are reaching a consensus that quality undergraduate learning looks very much like AAC&U’s Essential Learning Outcomes:

All these goals for learning have been captured in AAC&U’s Essential Learning Outcomes and in Lumina Foundation’s Degree Qualifications Profile. Both documents have been widely used and adapted by institutions across higher education.

The good news, in other words, is that US higher education does have—right now—clear expectations for what counts as quality learning. Moreover, as abundant other research makes clear, employers hold largely the same expectations for quality learning, and see these kinds of learning as critical to career navigation and success.7

Recent widely read and reviewed books—e.g., Michael Roth’s Why Liberal Education Matters and Fareed Zakaria’s In Defense of Liberal Education—speak not of liberal arts education, but of liberal education.

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This sea change in how we describe our goals for undergraduate education is not just a clearer, far more appropriate way to think of higher education in the twenty-first century, it also promises to remove us from the minefield of having to defend all liberal arts content in today’s supercharged political environment only on grounds of the content’s value to students and the nation. If we commit to ensure that all liberal arts courses have explicit liberal learning goals beyond content, with assignments designed to foster student achievement of these goals in addition to content learning, defense of the liberal arts is far easier. When we can say unequivocally that undergraduate study of the classics, or philosophy, or art history, or gender studies always explicitly—not just implicitly—includes goals and assignments meant to improve students’ critical thinking, analytical and quantitative reasoning, writing, oral communication, evidence-based reasoning, and other liberal learning skills, we almost always find agreement across the political spectrum on the value of such an education. That’s a way forward toward consensus that Carol has seen for a very long time.

Finally, it is always important to add that the broad learning goals we have characterized as “essential” must be a part of the undergraduate education of all students. If the way we structure access to quality college learning means that it is far less available to disadvantaged students, then we ensure that whole segments of our population will never participate fully in American economic and political life. Without higher-order skills and adaptive, learning-oriented habits of mind, individuals will not be able to compete for the jobs that represent the upward mobility we so often—wrongly for at least three decades—proclaim as America’s distinctive societal characteristic. Liberal education cannot be elite education. Carol’s insistence on this from the beginning makes me proud every day to be a part of AAC&U.  


1. See Hart Research Associates, It Takes More than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2013); Anthony Carnevale, Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce, analysis prepared for Association of American Colleges and Universities Presidents’ Trust, “The Economic Value of Liberal Education,” June 2009.

2. S. Georgia Nugent’s translation of the term “artes liberales,” in The Liberal Arts in Action: Past, Present, and Future (Washington, DC: Council of Independent Colleges, 2015), 3.

3. Board of Directors of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, “Statement on Liberal Learning,” October 1, 1998,

4. Nugent, The Liberal Arts in Action.

5. See, for example, William Condon, Ellen R. Iverson, Cathryn A. Manduca, Carol Rutz, and Gudrun Willett, Faculty Development and Student Learning: Assessing the Connections (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2016), especially chapter 6.

6. Nugent, The Liberal Arts in Action, 18.

7. Carol Geary Schneider, “Policy Priorities for Accreditation Put Quality College Learning at Risk,” Liberal Education 101/102, no. 4/1 (2016): 25.

Daniel F. Sullivan, president emeritus of St. Lawrence University, is senior advisor to the president, chair of the AAC&U Presidents’ Trust, and advancement fellow at the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

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