In the classroom, students cluster around desks in small groups, considering what Socrates is looking for when he asks Meno, as Plato describes in one of his dialogues, what the very being of virtue is, rather than its various manifestations. What is the thing in itself? The students wonder along with Meno, investigating what they think it means to be a good person while testing the opinions of their peers, guided by Socrates’ learning model of questions and dialogue. This is the sort of exploration you’ll find in this classroom, which is not on the campus of a private liberal arts college in New England but deep in the heart of Texas at Austin Community College (ACC).
The course, founded and led by faculty, is called the Great Questions Seminar, and it is a pioneering general education first-year success initiative at a community college. Taking place in a supportive and collaborative learning environment and based on the principles of a liberal education, the course focuses on discussion-based study of transformative texts and many of the persistent human questions they raise. These questions include: What is the good life? How do individuals know what they know? Who am I? Where am I going, and what difference does it make?
In addition to Plato’s Meno, students study Homer’s Odyssey, selections from global religious works like the Koran and the Hebrew Bible, and the poetry of authors like Sappho and Hildegard of Bingen. Students learn to write clearly as they work on assignments requiring them to make arguments based upon textual evidence. They learn to speak with confidence as they present on topics of global cultural significance. Some days, the classroom whiteboards are covered with shapes, letters, and mathematical expressions. The students work through propositions from Euclid’s Elements, discovering the creative beauty of mathematical thinking as they learn the rigor of proof and deductive reasoning.
General education courses taught in the tradition of liberal education—which aims to foster human freedom and flourishing—equip students with the tools and skills necessary to live free from the prejudice of unexamined opinion and to be active citizens in a functioning pluralistic republic, such as our own. As students more frequently complete general education courses at community colleges, ACC’s Great Questions offers an intriguing example of how a commitment to liberal learning can broaden the understanding and outcomes of student success at two-year campuses beyond persistence and transfer rates to also include outcomes such as resilience, adaptability, moral decision-making, and the capacity to work in diverse teams.
Like at many other institutions, all new students at ACC must take a course aimed at developing the habits and skills of a successful college student. Great Questions fulfills this requirement, and since 2018, more than three thousand ACC students have completed the three-credit course. More than a hundred faculty members from various disciplines participate in the program, having undergone a six-week training to teach the seminar using a common syllabus, which they collectively manage and update.
Most class meetings begin with students seated in small groups of five—ACC faculty fought for a class cap of twenty-five. The classroom is a small community in which everyone’s voice contributes to a collaborative pursuit of truth. In addition to teaching the course, Great Questions faculty members hold one-on-one mentor meetings with students twice each semester. Students come to rely on Great Questions faculty as trusted sources of guidance both in the course and outside of the classroom, with faculty playing an active role in the students’ first-semester experience by helping them navigate a colossal institution such as ACC.
Supported by a generous grant from the Teagle Foundation, Great Questions has had a remarkable impact on students at ACC, where many who have completed the course reported that it was one of their most meaningful and helpful academic experiences. Seventy-nine percent of students, according to five semesters of aggregate exit survey data gathered from Great Questions students, agreed or strongly agreed that their participation in Great Questions, which emphasizes active listening in classroom discussions, helped them have better conversations. Eighty percent reported that the course helped them better understand and contextualize material they read. Seventy-eight percent said that they want to continue learning about the ideas they encountered in Great Questions.
In the several focus groups faculty have organized, students also said that their experience in the course helped them form bonds with others across cultural and ideological differences. They explained that the discussion-based nature of the course made them feel connected to an academic community in which they could freely explore challenging ideas in a supportive environment.
These types of communication skills and sense of connection and support will help students to succeed not only in college and in their future careers but also in their personal lives and as citizens of our democratic republic, where engaging with others productively across differences is paramount.
Including the broader aims of a liberal education in assessments of student success at community colleges does not require leaders to disregard persistence and transfer rates, which, while important, are not the only markers of success. In fact, ACC faculty have seen that our engagement with students in asking broad humanistic questions actually contributes to their persistence from one semester to the next and in transferring to a four-year institution within a reasonable amount of time. First-year students who successfully complete Great Questions persist to the spring semester at a rate of 98 percent, with fall-to-fall persistence rates at 85 percent. Forty-four percent of first-year students who successfully complete Great Questions transfer to a four-year college or university within two years of completing the course, and the learning experience in the course helps many of them complete a four-year degree.
More than 41 percent of US undergraduates are enrolled at a community college, and in many states, more than half of four-year degrees are granted to students who began their study at one. Given that transfer-bound students typically complete general education coursework at their community college—and given the importance of liberal education for our representative democracy—educators at these campuses must help students develop as human beings and not just as higher education consumers.
Lead photograph: Austin Community College students demonstrate Euclid’s Proposition 47. (Catalin Abagiu)