Liberal Education

From the Editor

The 2007 annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities was not held in New Orleans because of Hurricane Katrina; the city is among three others in a regular rotation. But neither was the meeting held there despite the hurricane. For an association dedicated to promoting liberal education, the setting itself presented an object lesson in the importance of the civic mission of the academy.

It might also be said that the annual meeting was held in the aftermath of A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education, the report of the Spellings Commission on the Future of Higher Education. Released in September 2006, the report has remarkably little to say about the aims and outcomes of a twenty-first-century education, even as it calls for standardized tests to measure and compare student learning. And as the AAC&U board of directors pointed out upon its release, the report completely ignores “the longstanding and distinctively American goal of preparing students for engaged citizenship”—an omission made all the more glaring by everything the phrase “Hurricane Katrina” has come to signify.

Given the context, then, the 2007 annual meeting seemed almost to title itself: “The Real Test: Liberal Education and Democracy’s Big Questions.”

The annual meeting issues of Liberal Education are never really adequate to convey the variety and the vibrancy of the meetings themselves. Journal reading is a poor substitute for the camaraderie, the sense of community and common purpose the experience engenders. But this seems especially so this year, when the setting was so intimately a part of the meeting.

Scott Cowen, president of Tulane University, encourages people to “visit [New Orleans], see it for themselves, and then go back home and talk about it.” Doubtless many conferees did just that. Perhaps this issue of Liberal Education will serve as a reminder and spark renewed conversations about liberal education and democracy’s “big questions.”

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