Liberal Education

Greater Expectations and Civic Engagement

This fall, AAC&U released its newest national report, Greater Expectations: A New Vision for Learning as a Nation Goes to College. Since then, my colleagues and I have been taking part in "Campus-Community Dialogues" across the nation, as colleges and universities from New England to New Jersey to southern California host public discussions about the "re-invigorated liberal education" the report proposes. These dialogues are part of the AAC&U Presidents' Campaign for the Advancement of Liberal Learning (CALL), which now has the support of over 500 college and university presidents. (For more information on the CALL and the Dialogues, see www.aacu.org/call.)

On campus, many Greater Expectations readers seem to focus -- positively for the most part -- on the report's recommendation that liberal education should become practical as well as analytical and inclusive rather than exclusive. But in these public dialogues, the business, school, and community leaders who gather to discuss the report seem even more engaged by its call for a renewed commitment to education for civic engagement and ethical integrity.

Many of the CALL dialogues have asked business, civic, and school leaders what they themselves consider the important outcomes of a twenty-first century liberal education. In one discussion after another, from Salt Lake City to Largo, Maryland, I have watched participants reproduce in their own words the section of the Greater Expectations report (23-24) that explores education for "Responsibility." Repeatedly, participants underline the importance of integrity, ethical discernment, civic responsibility, and engagement in public life as outcomes of college learning.

In thoughtful and non-contentious ways, many of the small groups have also discussed our democracy's need for people who know, and can respond respectfully to, communities, cultures, histories, and viewpoints different from their own. Clearly, these leaders understand at a sophisticated level the dynamic interaction between diversity and democracy.

But not everyone agrees
By contrast, national survey and focus group reports show that the general public does NOT, on the whole, see active citizenship as an essential outcome of a college education. Greater Expectations cites research showing that only 44 percent of the responding public consider active citizenship as an important college outcome.

The University of Michigan's Kellogg Forum on Higher Education for the Public Good reports even more discouragingly that both a commissioned national random-sample telephone survey and a series of subsequent focus groups found respondents largely unable to see a relationship between higher education and the public good. "Civics ...almost doesn't come up unprompted. And when we asked explicitly, 'What is the connection between higher education and democracy?' . . . [respondents] really struggled to find a connection" (Draft Report, 15).

This national research shows that higher education has a long way to go to build public support -- or even understanding -- of the engaged and socially responsible liberal education Greater Expectations recommends. But the campus-community dialogues suggest that the academy could work in much closer partnership with business, school, and civic leaders to try to reverse the privatized concept of higher learning that has taken root in recent years.

Reclaiming civic obligations
Dialogues with the public must be grounded, of course, in a serious commitment to civic engagement on campus. As President Corrigan argues in these pages, we have only very recently "taken on the daunting task of identifying and institutionalizing a new set of civic and moral values." While civic engagement is one of the oldest and most venerable concerns of liberal education, in the mid-twentieth century -- when many of today's campus leaders were in school -- it was set aside in favor of more "objective" and "Ivory Tower" approaches to learning. It's that recent history we are now struggling to overcome.

And yet, even in a short span of time, we have made significant progress. Through the work of Campus Compact and other leading national organizations, many campuses are now embedding service opportunities in credit-bearing curricular offerings.

In addition, I am convinced that several decades of work on issues of diversity have paid off in a citizenry that sees diversity as a major source of our nation's strength. I believe that higher education's work on diversity played a key role in the degree to which Americans responded to the September 11 attacks with much more discernment than was true in earlier periods of our nation's history. While individual expressions of hate could be found, national leaders from all sectors called out for tolerance and respect for Arab Americans and Muslims.

To my mind, despite these obvious gains, we must now turn with renewed energy to two other related and urgent tasks. First, we must help our publics-prospective students, their parents, state legislators, trustees, business, and civic leaders-understand the importance of this particular liberal education outcome. We must more persuasively argue that civic engagement ought to be central to the mission of higher education and that our democracy's future depends on how successfully we get more students to reach this outcome.

In his article below, K. Edward Spiezio points out another area where renewed attention is needed. He argues that while we have made great strides in inspiring students to active citizenship through service learning opportunities, too few of these opportunities get at the heart of our political process or at the difficult task of creating authentically participatory democratic institutions. We are failing to provide students "with the knowledge, skills, and confidence needed to participate actively in the political process."

If we can effectively communicate to the general public the importance of civic engagement as a liberal education outcome and develop programs that will engage students in community-based learning and inspire them for political participation, this New Academy recommended in Greater Expectations will be a powerful force in reinvigorating our democracy as well as educating tomorrow's work force.

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