Liberal Education

Cultural Pluralism and Civic Values

This year, AAC&U is celebrating ninety years of leadership to advance the aims and practices of liberal education. One of the many milestones in that history was a major AAC&U initiative funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, from 1989 to 1993, titled Engaging Cultural Legacies: Shaping Core Curricula in the Humanities.

Engaging Cultural Legacies drew applications from more than 250 colleges and universities and worked intensively with sixty-three campuses to develop new intellectual frameworks for the exploration of global and U.S. cultures and to require at least two semesters of a common “cultural legacies” experience for all or most of their students. I first met the lead author for this issue of Liberal Education, Peter Stearns, when his former university, Carnegie Mellon, provided one of the many exciting general education designs for the project.

When the project concluded, AAC&U Senior Fellow Betty Schmitz (now at the University of Washington) and I wrote an “Afterword” pointing to issues raised but not really addressed by these core courses on culture and its analysis. If anything, our comments on culture and civic competencies seem even more timely today. In the spirit of this anniversary moment, I share the following excerpts.

AAC's Cultural Legacies project provides a glimpse of core curriculum reform at a moment of dramatic transition in higher education in the United States. Colleges and universities in the project are attempting to come to terms with the intellectual and curricular implications of a new social and political consciousness of cultural pluralism at home and abroad. In these programs, a dialogic model for engaging culture is fast replacing a univocal model. The excitement of engaging cultural pluralism in the content and structure of core curricula has led not to a new paradigm for their central focus but to great intellectual vitality. The reach of new core programs extends well beyond the current expertise of faculties; part of the excitement comes from the fact that faculty members themselves are enlarging their own academic interests and expertise along both cultural and interdisciplinary lines.

Despite the many strengths of these new core courses, however, there is a remarkable absence of attention to the meanings and responsibilities of citizenship in a multicultural society. In the syllabi reviewed for this study, civic values, virtues, and institutions frequently seem to be an assumed background rather than an essential foreground for explorations of diversity. Too often, democracy and democratic pluralism are taken as givens--not as hard-won, historically situated values and practices still in negotiation in this country and internationally. Reading a handful of great texts in U.S. history, as a few programs require, will not provide students with either the knowledge or the competencies that participation in a pluralistic democracy requires.

Current social and political events dramatically illustrate that we must redefine what core values our cultural systems embed. Democracy, as we know, does not function optimally for all of our citizens. Members of different cultural groups, differentially situated relative to power and status, have very different beliefs about the causes, manifestations, extent, and remedies for social, political, and economic inequities. Yet few of us have had the formal multicultural educational experiences that enable us to deal with these realities of cultural, political, and economic diversity as they affect our moral and civic responsibilities.

Core programs ought to give sustained attention to the connections between cultural knowledge and civic competencies and responsibilities. Michael Morris has argued that citizens in our society need new understandings and competencies--including interdependence, collaboration, holistic vision, cross-cultural and intercultural communication, consensus decision making, and community-global thinking. While others might construct this list differently, each core program should have its own understanding of the knowledge and capabilities basic to our diverse society. Each program should be able to explain what practices and assignments in the program foster these capabilities in students.

Liberal learning, as it manifests itself in approaches to general education, has always championed intellectual diversity as indispensable in fostering critical thinking and grounded analysis. Faculty members across the country are expanding their horizons to address and incorporate the diversity of cultural heritages in the United States and around the world. Our challenge for the future is to connect this new attention to cultural pluralism with our long-standing U.S. commitment to democratic pluralism. We must seek--not just as colleges but as a society--the intellectual, interpersonal, and civic learning that can sustain and renew a multicultural democracy.--Carol Geary Schneider

(Excerpted from Betty Schmitz, Core Curriculum and Cultural Pluralism: A Guide for Campus Planners, AAC, 1992.)

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