Liberal Education

Birthday Reflections

One of the pleasures of serving as your president is the frequency with which you--our members--tell me how valuable you find this quarterly, Liberal Education. With your standards and ours already very high, I think you will find that this issue--celebrating ninety years of AAC&U history and publication--achieves a new level of excellence.

I hope you will join me in congratulating and thanking Bridget Puzon, the wise and dedicated Liberal Education editor who found just the right authors for our ninetieth issue and who has given us all a very special birthday present.

In January, 2005, in San Francisco, AAC&U will hold its ninetieth anniversary meeting. In the long period since our founding, some things have been constant while others have evolved. To my knowledge, for example, the Annual Meeting has always convened in January, which means that our members have always run the exciting gauntlet presented by winter's most perilous weather. We started out in Chicago--in January. We are a hardy group!

To move from context to core: AAC&U has always taken it as our special mission not just to articulate the aims of liberal learning, but to do everything we can to make these aims a vigorous influence on institutional purpose and students' actual educational experience. And, as these pages and the other essays in the 1915 Bulletin tell us, we have always worried that crucial educational values basic to the liberal arts are ill-understood by many of our constituents.

But many things have changed in these past ninety years. When we first convened, we were an Association of colleges and presidents determined to uphold both the mission of the small college and the unique role of the arts and sciences. Today, our 900-plus institutional members mirror the diversity of the entire postsecondary community, large and small, public and private, two-year and four-year. Presidents remain leaders in the organization but so too are provosts, deans, academic leaders of many kinds, and, above all, faculty members from many disciplines who play a primary role in almost all our campus-based initiatives.

When we first convened, only about 10 percent of the population enrolled in any form of higher learning; today, we are part of a movement to make college graduation the norm. In 1909, no less a figure than Woodrow Wilson had already declared: "We want one class of persons to have a liberal education and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class of necessity, to forgo the privileges of a liberal education." Today, AAC&U leads a national effort to make liberal education an imperative for all students, especially those who have traditionally been underserved by higher education.

Perhaps most importantly, when we first convened, we assumed that liberal education was confined to specific research and/or classical disciplines, and that students, on entering the academy, would face an either-or choice: either the Liberal Arts, or Preparation for a Vocation, but not both--or at least, not both at once. Today, AAC&U embraces a much richer conception of liberal education. Liberal education, we believe, should teach students to think critically and constructively and should also prepare them to act effectively, as human beings, as workers, and as citizens. As the title of our recent--and largest ever--Annual Meeting proclaimed, we see liberal education as a set of practices--practices that help students integrate knowledge with action, and principle with practical judgment.

In short, the AAC&U community does not just champion liberal education. Rather, our members have led its adaptation and reinvigoration to better serve a diverse democracy and a knowledge-driven economy. In championing liberal education, we recognize that we are privileged to be part of a great, enduring, and resilient educational tradition whose roots run deep in ancient history. But in our approach to liberal education, we also look to the future, to the interdependence of the global community, to the pervasive influences of science and technology, and especially to the world's still unmet aspirations to equity and justice.
As we think about the future of liberal education, we take special comfort in knowing that its strength lies in a distinctive combination of core values and creative resilience. Liberal education endures because it applies to its own ethos and practices the critical inquiry and civic responsibility it prizes in graduates.

Today, we are in the midst of a new transition both for higher education and for the role of the academy in a fractured and interdependent world. Signs of the transition are all around us. Visit, for example, the "New Academy" on AAC&U's Greater Expectations Web site where designs for college learning are featured. Or browse through the featured science courses selected by AAC&U's national initiative on Science Education for New Civic Engagement and Responsibility (SENCER). Or participate in campus case studies at one of our Summer Institutes or our Network for Academic Renewal conferences. This is not the college curriculum we ourselves took as undergraduates! It is more inclusive, more global, more profoundly engaged with the wider world, and more attuned to the twin imperatives of innovation and interdependence.

This past fall, some 140 campuses submitted descriptions of their integrative programs in applying to our new project on Integrative Learning: Opportunities to Connect, co-sponsored with the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Learning. The applications point to yet another important frontier for liberal education: new designs for overcoming fragmentation and teaching
students how to integrate the different parts of their learning. The impulse itself is not new, of course. "Only Connect!" has been a watchword for a long time. But the applications were both fascinating and impressive in describing new practices that make integration itself one of the liberal arts--a set of practices to be both taught and learned.

Now, as we look to our ninetieth, and in a very short time, to our centennial, it is time to take seriously one of the core problems we also faced in 1915. We have never explained ourselves very well to the public, and we have never even tried to make a public case for liberal education as the best choice for all students. We have for too long allowed liberal education to be defined as elective, elite, or both. One of AAC&U's core priorities for the decade ahead will be to build public understanding--even public insistence--that excellence can become inclusive and that liberal education holds the key to the future--for all college students.

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