Liberal Education

In Pursuit of Quality and Deliberative Democracy

In their groundbreaking 2017 report on The Future of Undergraduate Education: The Future of America, the Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education, initiated by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, highlights that “what was once a challenge of quantity in American undergraduate education, of enrolling as many students as possible, is increasingly a challenge of educational quality—of making sure that all students receive the education they need to succeed.”1 Questions regarding how American colleges and universities can best prepare students to thrive in work, citizenship, and life are as old as the nation itself. In 1751, when Benjamin Franklin founded the College of Philadelphia, he sought a new model of education for an emerging nation. Rather than immersing students in the classical curriculum of the European elite, Franklin was convinced that an education grounded in the practical matters of everyday life and centered on the teaching of English and history would serve both students and society. Pointing to the need for innovation, democratic participation, and opportunities for social mobility in a dynamic new world,
Franklin nevertheless believed that higher education’s ultimate goals were service to humanity and pursuit of the public good.2

Talk of higher education as a public good, of investing in society through education, and, in the case of land-grant institutions, of “promot[ing] the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life,”3 has been replaced by talk of a return on investment—tuition in exchange for jobs. Some politicians have gone so far as to advocate for their state workforce needs by proposing legislation that would base funding for public colleges and universities exclusively on job acquisition for college graduates or stripping out so-called frills—such as “the search for truth,” “public service,” and “improv[ing] the human condition”—from their university system’s mission statement.4 Any disciplines not considered economic engines are reduced to the status of mere luxuries and are in danger of being excised. The rhetoric at the basis of these proposals not only posits a false dichotomy between a liberal education and preparation for work and life, it obscures the reality that colleges and universities continue to represent powerful institutional forces in catalyzing individual and societal transformation.

If leaders in higher education are to rewrite this narrative and make progress in bolstering the reputation of the academy within democratic society, colleges and universities must be visible drivers of the social, cultural, and economic well-being of their neighbors. Being truly anchored in one’s community necessitates establishing, as I have written elsewhere, “a bilateral relationship between research expertise and local epistemologies, public and private, scholar and citizen that can serve to erode partisanship resulting from competing ideologies.”5 Yet, to accomplish this, higher education leaders will need to place discussions around skills versus content, the meaningfulness and usefulness of the pragmatic liberal arts, and the primary purpose of education as fostering lifelong learning in conversation with discussions about how we assess students and train and reward future faculty. Together, we must identify and dismantle structures that create impediments to publicly engaged scholarship, community-based learning, and partnerships with K–12, business, and industry.

While traditionalist trustees prevented Franklin from seeing his visionary curriculum implemented during his lifetime, the ideal of broadening the liberal education of students to meet the demands of our deliberative democracy has persisted. Indeed, AAC&U’s 1,401 members understand that a liberal education for the twenty-first century mandates the acceleration of integrative learning opportunities that engage students in solving real-world problems. They also know that a graduate’s ability to think critically, communicate clearly, and work in diverse teams is more important than one’s undergraduate major, and they have demonstrated that such crosscutting skills can be developed in a wide variety of chosen disciplines, across all types of institutions. Most importantly, they recognize that opportunity results in equity only when focused on quality. Therefore, each student’s participation in high-impact practices and his or her achievement of essential learning outcomes must be considered core components of student-success initiatives at every college and university.

According to historian Jill Lepore, Franklin once wrote that he wished, rather than have an “ordinary death,” he could be “immersed in a cask of Madeira wine” and brought back one hundred years later to witness what had become of the country he loved (and helped create).6 What would Benjamin Franklin say today of the education offered by the diversity of colleges and universities providing access for those pursuing the American dream? What should we say? In the process of discovery, AAC&U looks forward to working with member institutions and communities across the country toward achieving our shared objective of ensuring that all students have the quality education they need to succeed.


1. Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education, The Future of Undergraduate Education: The Future of America (Cambridge, MA: American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2017), 1.

2. Lee Benson, Ira Harkay, John Puckett, Matthew Hartley, Rita A. Hodges, Francis E. Johnston, and Joann Weeks, Knowledge for Social Change: Bacon, Dewey, and the Revolutionary Transformation of Research Universities in the Twenty-First Century (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2017).

3. “An Act Donating Public Lands to the Several States and Territories Which May Provide Colleges for the Benefit of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts” (The Morrill Act), A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774–1875, 37th Congress, 2nd Session, 1962, 504,

4. Philip Bump, “Scott Walker Moved to Drop ‘Search for Truth’ from the University of Wisconsin Mission. His Office Claims It Was an Error,” Washington Post, February 4, 2015,

5. Lynn Pasquerella, “ ‘Whose American Dream?,’ ” AAC&U News, October 2017,

6. Jill Lepore, “Franklin, Reconsidered: An Essay by Jill Lepore,” Longreads, September 2015,

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