Liberal Education

Deepening the Connections: Liberal Education and Global Learning

There can be little doubt that, if the twentieth century was the “American Century,” the twenty-first century has already become a “Global Century,” framed by new power dynamics, new economic realities, and new quests for self-determination and freedom across all parts of the globe. In this context, both as educators and as citizens, we in the academy need to situate our goals, practices, and sites for student learning in a reenvisioned global context. And to do this, we need to invent new practices—learning with and from one another, and from partners around the world.

Through the Shared Futures: Global Learning and Social Responsibility initiative, AAC&U has brought together a community of individuals and institutions who are experimenting with curricular and cocurricular designs and strategies that intentionally align student learning goals with the demands of a global century. Launched over a decade ago, Shared Futures is an integral part of the wide-ranging Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative, AAC&U’s continuing effort to ensure that liberal education becomes the preferred college-learning framework for all students. Shared Futures’ focused efforts to prepare students for global challenges, civic engagement, diverse democracies at home and abroad, and ethical responsibility strongly complement LEAP’s work to increase attention to fundamental questions of student learning outcomes and assessment.

When establishing the Shared Futures initiative, we wondered how AAC&U members were using the term “global.” Studying that question with support from the Mellon Foundation, we found that while language about “global interdependence,” “global awareness,” and “global responsibility” was widely used in institutional mission statements and strategic plans, there was a profound disconnect between those rhetorical commitments and actual campus practice. In most cases, responsibility for global learning was relegated to study abroad offices, language departments, and those departments or programs that focused on international relations or on comparative culture, history, or politics. Consequently, while some students were studying complex global questions as part of their majors, the vast majority were not.

We also have canvassed employers’ views on global learning. A series of studies conducted for AAC&U since 2006 show that only one in four employers thinks that two-year and four-year colleges are doing a good job of preparing students for the challenges of the global economy. Forty-eight percent of employers surveyed in 2007 graded graduates’ global knowledge as poor. Correspondingly, a majority of employers want colleges to place more emphasis on the ability to understand the global context of situations and decisions (67 percent), the role of the United States in the world (57 percent), cultural diversity in the United States and other countries (57 percent), and intercultural competence or teamwork in diverse groups (71 percent).

The present “global moment” demands fresh attention to what it will take to make preparation for global challenges intentional, pervasive, and effective in all sectors of American higher education. Instead of accepting current educational practices and adjusting on the margins to add “global” features, higher education should take advantage of the convergence of the global learning agenda and the outcomes agenda to raise fundamental questions about what graduates should be able to do with their global learning, and to ask difficult questions about how institutions can match their practices to the need for far-reaching and transformative change.

Essential global learning outcomes

Through the LEAP initiative, AAC&U has recognized and built upon an emerging national consensus about the kinds of learning today’s college students need for work, life, and citizenship. While the LEAP essential learning outcomes were specifically designed to serve as a framework for discussion about liberal education, they can serve equally well as a powerful blueprint for global learning when we focus on the phrases that describe how that learning might proceed (rather than what is to be learned):

  • knowledge focused by engagement with big questions, both contemporary and enduring, including global and democratic questions and challenges
  • skills practiced extensively, across the curriculum, with a focus on “big questions” both global and civic, and in the context of progressively more challenging standards for performance
  • personal and social responsibility anchored through active involvement with diverse communities and real-world challenges, at home and abroad
  • integrative and applied learning demonstrated through the application of knowledge, skills, and responsibilities to new settings and complex problems, including global and civic problems that students will face in their chosen fields and that they will face as citizens in a globally engaged democracy

This vision of global learning cannot be met simply by adding a single general education requirement that students study a culture different from their own, or even by encouraging more students to study abroad. It requires a new approach to organizing the curriculum, the cocurriculum, institutional structures, and faculty/staff development—one that brings greater coherence to undergraduate education, that helps students make connections across individual courses and other learning experiences as well as between general education and the major, and that deepens student engagement.  It means ensuring, as campuses in Shared Futures are doing, that students have multiple opportunities to grapple with complex global questions, both questions related to their majors and questions related to the future of our planet.

When global learning is treated as just one more content area that needs to be covered in general education—and, perhaps, in some majors—students see it for the “add-on” that it is. But if instead we take the learning outcomes model seriously, global learning can become a transformative rationale for both general education and the major. Can we imagine a sequential global learning progression from the first to final years—keyed to expected student capabilities, rather than specified course content—with integrative and applied work at milestone and culminating points across the curriculum, and flexible points of entry for transfer students?

At AAC&U, we are heartened by the number of colleges and universities that are rethinking the old breadth-and-depth model for college learning and creating vertical designs for integrative, “braided” learning organized around student engagement with urgent problems and real-world challenges. Connecting these braided designs to global questions can result in far more than a better plan for college learning; it actually can build new capacity to create solutions for our global future.

Higher education today is simultaneously experiencing a crisis of confidence and an explosion of innovation. Both situations create opportunities to rethink and remap students’ educational pathways through college, using global learning as an integrative theme.  With global challenges all around us, we’d be much better prepared to “make the case for higher education” in a difficult fiscal and political environment if students’ liberal learning were more demonstrably tied to global preparation and learning.

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