Liberal Education

From the Editor

The essential learning outcomes of a liberal education are, as noted in the recent report from the National Leadership Council for Liberal Education and America's Promise, achieved through engagement with "the 'big questions,' both contemporary and enduring." Hence, the fourth Principle of Excellence identified in the LEAP report: "Engage the Big Questions."

That phrase "both contemporary and enduring" conflates two somewhat distinct categories of questions. The first are questions derived from far-reaching social issues or problems--HIV/AIDS, for example, or poverty or global warming. They are "big" in the sense that they affect broad sectors of society or even whole populations, and accordingly, their answers are broadly consequential. By contrast, the enduring Big Questions are the fundamental questions of what it means to be human. They are questions of meaning, value, and purpose, and they endure because while the questions are universal, the answers are not.

The two categories do overlap, of course. Existential questions are posed within a particular historical moment, and responses to them are subject to contemporary influence. Similarly, individuals bring their own values to bear in both framing the contemporary questions and working with others to find answers to them.

Engagement with Big Questions of both kinds is a distinctive feature of a liberal education. As Robert Connor observes in this issue, "the texts, problems, and historical and aesthetic experiences that have long stood at the center of a liberal education speak directly to such questions and concerns." It is expected that liberally educated graduates will participate in the search for answers to contemporary Big Questions, just as it is expected that they will continue to search for satisfying answers of their own to the enduring Big Questions. The moral duty to do both is captured by another familiar AAC&U phrase: personal and social responsibility, which describes an essential liberal education outcome.

Still, when examining the role of undergraduate education in preparing students to lead meaningful lives and to act as responsible citizens, it is useful to separate the contemporary from the enduring. To that end, this issue of Liberal Education examines engagement with the enduring Big Questions. Engagement with contemporary Big Questions--the theme of the 2007 annual meeting, "The Real Test: Liberal Education and Democracy's Big Questions"--will be taken up in the summer issue .

Previous Issues