Liberal Education

The Impossible Takes a Little Longer

"The difficult we do immediately. The impossible takes a little longer." This familiar slogan, used during World War II as a motto by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, took on a double resonance for me as I read—with admiration and pleasure—the articles on liberal education at the military academies featured in this issue.

It was a huge breakthrough in the struggle over affirmative action when the nation's military leaders stepped forward to lend their ardent support to the University of Michigan's Supreme Court defense of diversity as both a compelling public value and an educational necessity. The combined testimony from many quarters helped win Court agreement that ensuring our nation's future requires diversity at all levels. I now wonder whether our military leaders will be the ones to help achieve a breakthrough public agreement that ensuring our nation's future also requires liberal education—and, therefore, that liberal education ought to be the curriculum of choice for everyone.

Through the Liberal Education and America's Promise (LEAP) initiative, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) has taken on the long-term task of winning broad societal agreement that all college students, not just some of them, need and deserve the opportunity-expanding advantages of a liberal education. And many of you, our members, have joined forces around the shared commitment to help all students seek and achieve the LEAP essential learning outcomes, which establish hallmark reference points for the learning college students need. But we have yet to persuade either policy makers or higher education "thought leaders" to join in that same commitment to make excellence—meaning liberal education—inclusive.

It's one of my current hobbies, actually, to keep track of the editorial blacklisting, as one respected educational leader after another—almost all of them benefitting from their own experience of liberal education—uses some other term to describe the intended purposes of contemporary college study. "Quality" seems to be the current euphemism of choice, despite its meaninglessness without contextual clarity. After all, while a Michigan B.A. and a Microsoft certificate training program might both be described as "high-quality programs," their actual substance differs vastly. Nonetheless, the commitment to "high-quality programs" now covers a host of postsecondary options, from "stackable certificates" to the finest baccalaureate education.

"Liberal education," by contrast, points to a clear set of empowering educational aims and outcomes. The term references a rich and highly successful educational tradition whose core elements—broad knowledge of science, culture, and society; a strong focus on developing the powers of the mind to a high level; persistent attention to ethical and civic responsibility—have helped win U.S. higher education standing and admiration the world over. The content of the curriculum has changed to keep pace with changes in the world, but the commitment to develop knowledgeable and responsible citizens is as central to liberal education today as it was in the age of Jefferson, Eliot, Dewey or W. E. B. Du Bois.

Traditionally and today, the core elements of liberal education have been intimately connected to the advancement of human freedom and to its responsible exercise. Liberal education involves a deliberate process of formation that prepares individuals to contribute to the larger good through the thoughtful integration of sound knowledge, reasoned judgments, and examined responsibilities to self and others. And yet, liberal education has become the tradition that dare not speak its name—at least when policy makers and national leaders are in the room. "I can't use the term 'liberal education,'" one prominent figure said recently—and defensively—in a public forum. "I would be pilloried." Well, maybe. But if everyone who actually believes in this tradition were to stand up together and declare liberal education to be an issue of civil rights or even national security, not all of us could be pilloried. Still, even getting higher education leaders themselves to rally to the cause of liberal education often seems like Mission Impossible.

Now, however, the cavalry has arrived. As you will see in this issue, the military academies are tackling liberal education with far more determination and seriousness than almost anyone else. Their shared commitments give me new hope that this Mission Impossible will take (only) a little longer. As you read these searching reports from West Point, the Air Force Academy, and the Naval Academy, you may well be surprised. I certainly was taken aback when, nearly a decade ago, one of my colleagues returned from a visit to the Air Force Academy and reported that its students have to take more than ninety hours of general education courses. Ninety hours! It's more than that at all three academies, with engineering added to the more typical arts and sciences core.

That arts and sciences core is only a small part of what the military academies actually mean by liberal education. The academies know, as Bruce Keith observes, that "our graduates must be an essential part of the solution to the nation's challenges." Individually and together they have concluded that an integrative, transformative liberal education is the most powerful pathway to that goal.

The Air Force Academy and West Point have worked together—through AAC&U's Core Commitments initiative and our summer institutes—to place special emphasis on the personal and social responsibility dimensions of liberal education and leadership development. I have been privileged to sit on the sidelines while large teams of faculty and staff from both institutions probed the differences between merely conforming to an ethical code and actually internalizing core values as standards for judgment and action under fire. These colleagues were talking about ethical responsibility as a life-or-death issue, not just something to explore in a single course.

The Air Force Academy's efforts have been influenced by AAC&U's delineation of personal and social responsibility as a necessary (rather than optional) component of liberal education. And the academy has made additional commitments of its own to "respect for human dignity" and "service to the nation." These are, in truth, fundamental to the future of our democracy, as well as to global leadership on behalf of democracy around the world. Maybe it's time to recognize them both in AAC&U's framework of essential learning outcomes.

Similarly, the Naval Academy's approach to global preparation is a case study in what it means to make an intended outcome primary and unavoidable. The Naval Academy has reworked its core courses and majors to make global themes pervasive; has connected language study to cultural content; has developed global forms that hold programs for students several times each week; and features a host of ways of providing direct experience with other cultures for its midshipmen.

Keith notes that "America admires West Point because West Point has delivered for America." In fact, all the academies are delivering for America, on many levels and in far quarters of the world. Liberal education, too, has delivered for America. And through the work and accomplishment of all the colleges and universities that take this tradition seriously as the standard for educational excellence, it continues to do so.

Getting national leaders to acknowledge our nation's fundamental dependence on the quality and inclusiveness of liberal education shouldn't be Mission Impossible. As I invite you to read, ponder, and share this issue of Liberal Education, I dare to hope that—with help from the military—it may take only a little longer.

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