Memo to AAC&U Members on the Indispensable Liberal Arts and Sciences (August 2013)

Monday, August 5, 2013

Dear Colleague,

As we look ahead to the new academic year, I am writing to tell you about AAC&U's current work on behalf of the liberal arts and sciences and about ways you can use this work for your own educational efforts.

Let me first set the context for AAC&U's approach to this work.

Through our signature initiative, Liberal Education and America's Promise (LEAP), AAC&U is determined to help make the purposes and practices that characterize a twenty-first-century liberal education a guiding compass for all students and all major fields. In that spirit, we have actively reached out to help campuses map key aims of liberal education—the LEAP Essential Learning Outcomes and the closely related "High-Impact Practices"—across the full range of professional, career, and technical fields, as well as arts and sciences majors and, of course, general education.

However, while AAC&U's vision for liberal education encompasses all fields of study, we see rich learning in the liberal arts and sciences as a necessary and crucial component within the overarching goals of a twenty-first-century liberal education. Studies in the liberal arts and sciences—the humanities, social sciences, sciences, and arts—build knowledge and capacities needed for informed civic engagement and global responsibility. They also provide a larger context for students' specialized interests. As AAC&U resources repeatedly affirm, it is impossible to be well prepared either for careers or for citizenship without knowledge of global, cultural, technological, and scientific developments that are driving dramatic change in virtually every occupational area and every sphere of life.

Yet, as you know, public policy and public opinion are increasingly dismissive of the liberal arts.

Many—including leaders in the Obama administration who have themselves benefited from a liberal education, typically with liberal arts and sciences majors—simply don't discuss "liberal education" or the "liberal arts" in public. They, and too many of us, are engaged in what I've called elsewhere "a conspiracy of voluntary silence."

Other public leaders in Congress, the states, and some think tanks have launched scathing assaults on the humanities, social sciences, and the arts, urging that they be defunded at the federal level and describing majors in these fields as a waste of time and money.

Liberal education is arguably the world's premier educational tradition, and the liberal arts and sciences are foundational to that tradition; even as other societies seek to import and benefit from this tradition, too many American leaders are marginalizing or attacking it.

Taking note of these disturbing trends, AAC&U promised in our new strategic plan for 2013–17 to "give special priority to the indispensable role of the liberal arts and sciences in preparing students simultaneously for global engagement, economic opportunity, democratic responsibility, and personal fulfillment." This memo outlines key areas of work that we have launched or expanded in support of this commitment.

What follows is not a comprehensive review of all AAC&U's work; you can find that on our website. Instead, the following are summary highlights of our current efforts to promote the societal value of learning in the liberal arts and sciences and to help students connect that value with their lives beyond college.

New Research on Employers' Views and Liberal Arts Salaries

  • It Takes More Than a Major, the widely cited report based on the fourth in AAC&U's series of employer surveys conducted by Hart Research Associates. The report shows very strong employer support for (1) the LEAP Essential Learning Outcomes; (2) broad knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences; (3) practices, such as undergraduate research, that engage students with questions and inquiry methods essential to the liberal arts tradition; (4) breadth plus depth, rather than study only in a single field; and (5) AAC&U's own definition of liberal education. The full report, along with findings from the three earlier employer surveys, is available here. (Additionally, I am linking to summary findings from that research, which I invite you to use in your own advocacy and campus work.)
  • A forthcoming study—prepared in partnership with the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems—showing the long-term salary and employment trajectories of graduates in various disciplinary categories, specifically including the humanities, the arts, the social sciences, the sciences and mathematics, engineering, and other professional fields. Watch for this report in the fall, and help us promote its finding that, high-profile "concerns" to the contrary, humanities and social sciences majors do, in fact, find gainful employment and earn solid and increasing salaries over the course of a career. The Teagle Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities are supporting this work.

Advocacy Resources and Partnerships

  • Direct and ongoing advocacy for the liberal arts and sciences through our LEAP partnership with nine state systems and their respective two- and four-year institutions, and through informal affiliations with educational leaders in numerous additional states.
  • Board-level leadership in the National Humanities Alliance (NHA), which AAC&U helped form in 1981, when federal leaders first proposed to defund the National Endowment for the Humanities. (An excellent set of NHA "talking points" on the humanities is available here.) The NHA provides humanities advocacy on many levels in partnership with more than one hundred learned societies and educational associations, and is working now to prevent the further evisceration of NEH funding.
  • Updated PowerPoint presentations on the economic case for liberal education and the civic case for liberal education. These presentations are rich with empirical findings and citations. (I encourage you to "mix and match" the slides for your own purposes.)
  • Leadership for liberal education and the liberal arts and sciences through AAC&U's LEAP Presidents' Trust. Membership is open to all AAC&U presidents who are interested in working together to provide public advocacy and campus leadership for liberal education.
  • Active cooperation with other national and regional liberal arts advocacy efforts, including those led by the Council for Independent Colleges and Phi Beta Kappa. We want these mutual efforts to both complement and reinforce one another.

New Leadership and Support for Campus Work on the Liberal Arts and Sciences

  • A newly launched office at AAC&U—led by Vice President David Paris and Senior Director Kevin Hovland—called Integrative Liberal Learning and the Global Commons (ILGC). This office is charged to support students' engagement with "big questions" and "urgent challenges" through cross-disciplinary inquiry in the liberal arts and sciences, and to work toward a twenty-first-century "remapping" of general education. AAC&U is currently in dialogue with funders about expanded support for this work and, through our sponsored initiatives, for your own campus work.
  • A forthcoming report on principles and practices for arts and sciences learning in twenty-first-century contexts. Through a project funded by Teagle and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, ILGC leaders are preparing a new report on liberal learning in residential contexts. We plan to make a draft copy of the report available for discussion at AAC&U's annual meeting in 2014, and to release the final report at AAC&U's centennial annual meeting in 2015.
  • A new leader for Project Kaleidoscope (PKAL), AAC&U's STEM higher education reform center. PKAL Executive Director Kelly Mack came to AAC&U from the National Science Foundation, determined to apply what has been learned from national efforts to strengthen STEM learning to PKAL's far-reaching work.
  • Promotion of problem-centered learning. PKAL and ILGC are working together, and with AAC&U's three other program offices, to "front-load" problem-centered inquiry and research in the early years of college in order to engage students—including students from underserved communities—from the outset of their studies with the "big questions" and "grand challenges" that the arts and sciences explore.
  • Annual working conferences on liberal learning for global and civic responsibility and on STEM reform, to be held this year in Providence, Rhode Island (October 3–5), and San Diego, California (October 31–November 2), respectively. Part of AAC&U's Network for Academic Renewal series, and led by ILGC and PKAL, these two conferences are designed specifically for faculty in the arts and sciences disciplines. They complement AAC&U's other Network conferences on general education and assessment and student success. See for more details.
  • A Symposium on New Designs for Integrative Liberal Learning. To be held on January 22, 2014, in conjunction with the AAC&U annual meeting, this symposium will feature the efforts of campuses across the country (and beyond) to bring new rigor and relevance to the arts and sciences and to help students connect their college learning to careers, citizenship, and global responsibility.
  • A Scientific Thinking and Integrative Reasoning Skills (STIRS) Case Study Project. In 2013–14, thanks to gifts from individual donors, the first cohort of STIRS Scholars will develop and publish case-based modules that foster evidence-based reasoning and problem-solving skills across general education curricula.

Partnerships with Other Organizations in Support of the Liberal Arts and Sciences

  • Bringing Theory to Practice (BTtoP). AAC&U has worked for a decade with this ambitious and creative national effort to foster engaged learning, civic responsibility, and student flourishing through learning in the liberal arts and sciences. Led by Donald Harward, president emeritus of Bates College, and Sally Pingree, principal of the Charles Engelhard Foundation, BTtoP is the only national initiative that focuses on what our colleagues in Asia call "whole-person learning." AAC&U actively supports its far-reaching campus efforts and research projects related to students' engaged learning and well-being.
  • The Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement Action Network (CLDE). AAC&U Senior Scholar Caryn McTighe Musil now coordinates a coalition of thirteen partner organizations that share AAC&U's commitment, envisioned in A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy's Future, to make civic learning pervasive and expected for all students, rather than optional for some students. We have expanded our quarterly publication Diversity and Democracy so that it can serve as "community space" for these partner organizations, including Campus Compact, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities' American Democracy Project, the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, and ten other associations and foundations committed to civic learning and engagement.
  • The STEM Reform Coalition. Linda Slakey, former director of undergraduate education at the National Science Foundation and now a PKAL senior scholar at AAC&U, coordinates a coalition of major national associations and projects that are working together to promote widespread adoption of evidence-based teaching and learning practices in STEM studies, especially in the initial years of college. PKAL is an active partner in this coalition effort, which is supported by the Sloan Foundation.


I hope you find it helpful to see AAC&U's current work on the liberal arts and sciences summarized. My colleagues and I warmly invite your questions and feedback. Please don't hesitate to contact us if you would like to learn more about how to engage your own campus faculty and leaders in this multi-front effort to promote the value of these studies and bring new creativity to liberal arts teaching and learning.

We also encourage you and your colleagues to become actively involved in the broader national effort to position the liberal arts and sciences as they need and deserve to be—as core strengths and vital resources to help our graduates navigate a complicated world and make wise choices about their own lives, our shared democracy, and America's global responsibilities.

I am struck that post–World War II leaders, both in policy circles and on campuses, readily grasped the close connections between learning in the arts and sciences and the United States' capacity to advance democracy, build international understanding and cooperation, and drive economic creativity and resilience. Today, we need to reclaim that larger vision of leadership and service for a world that would be immeasurably poorer without the knowledge and capacities the arts and sciences foster.

We look to you—our 1,300 institutional members and the thousands of campus representatives who work with us—to help our society "right-size" its approach to liberal education and the indispensable liberal arts and sciences.

We need your creativity on campus, and we need your courageous leadership in the public square. The AAC&U board of directors, staff, fellows, and scholars will do everything in our power to support you.

With best wishes as you start the new academic year,

Carol Geary Schneider

Carol Geary Schneider