Liberal Education

Liberal Education and America's Promise

With this year's annual meeting, AAC&U has begun a decade-long public advocacy and campus action initiative to champion the value of liberal education--for individual students and for a nation dependent on economic creativity and democratic vitality. Liberal Education and America's Promise (LEAP) is intended to build new public understanding of the aims of a contemporary liberal education and new capacity within the academy to help all students achieve these aims.

We have launched this initiative because we believe the academy stands at a crossroads. With millions of students not only seeking a college education but actually enrolling, the United States has an extraordinary opportunity to provide an entire generation--and returning adults as well--with the kind of life-enhancing, horizon-expanding education that was once available only to a fortunate few.

Liberal education has always been this nation's premier educational tradition. It has achieved this standing because of its recognized success in fostering intellectual and ethical judgment, helping students comprehend and negotiate their relationship to the larger world, and preparing graduates for lives of civic responsibility and employment. Simply put, liberal education plays a crucial role in American society, both in expanding economic opportunity and in preparing people for engaged citizenship and fulfilling lives.

Yet, in fact, liberal education is visibly slipping off the nation's radar screen. Policy and educational leaders are currently engaged, for example, in far-reaching discussions about providing "new accountability" for student learning and about the importance of practices that foster "student success." But such policy dialogues are never tied to the outcomes and practices that characterize a strong liberal education.

As AAC&U reported in a recent study (see, college-bound students have barely heard of liberal education, and even advanced college students associate it mainly with study in selected disciplines. The students least likely to know about liberal education are, of course, those from groups that historically have been least likely to attend college at all.

Our campaign seeks to put the most important aims of college education back at the center of public and campus focus and to highlight programs and practices that help all students, whatever their background or career aspirations, achieve those aims. Seeking to cut through the frequent confusion among such terms as liberal education, general education, liberal arts disciplines, liberal arts colleges, and the like, our campaign will focus consistently on liberal education "across-the-academy," in every kind of college and university and in every discipline.

Liberal Education and America's Promise also will turn a spotlight on the many innovative programs, curricula, and pedagogies that are springing up across the academy and that--collectively--have the potential to bring new vigor and vitality to the way we address fundamental goals of a contemporary liberal education: intellectual judgment, individual and civic responsibility, and integrative learning. Characteristically, these new approaches to curriculum and pedagogy engage students with some of the world's most important questions, both contemporary and enduring. Emerging research shows that these more "engaged" forms of learning have particular value in raising the level of college achievement for first-generation students and for students from underserved communities.

In addition, the campaign will call public attention to new curricula that deliberately weave together topics drawn from the liberal arts and sciences and from professional fields such as education, health, engineering, and business. These emerging alliances between the liberal arts and the professions around themes such as sustainable communities or ethical responsibility are an important resource for individuals' learning and, ultimately, for the vision and integrity graduates carry with them into the world of work. These alliances deserve new public awareness and support.

In the twentieth century, well-intentioned proponents of liberal education placed great weight on learning for its own sake, separate from and largely indifferent to the careers that students would eventually enter. Through Liberal Education and America's Promise, we will take just the opposite position, helping all students discover clear connections between the aims of liberal education and the lives they want to lead, as contributors to a changing economy, as citizens in a diverse democracy, and as thoughtful people.

In the world of work that our students seek to enter, for example, business leaders have formed a virtual chorus proclaiming the new importance of analytical, contextual, scientific, and creative thinking to our economy. With increasing urgency, employers also are calling for graduates who are versed in communication skills, adept at quantitative reasoning, oriented to innovation, sophisticated about diversity, and grounded in cross-cultural and global learning. These are the very capabilities that liberal education fosters. And these same capabilities also are basic to citizenship, at home and in the global community.

We need to help our students and our publics discover these connections. Indeed, we need to invite business and civic leaders to themselves become advocates for the important connections between liberal education and American priorities. The challenge we face within AAC&U, in short, is how to make much more transparent the connections between the learning cultivated in a good liberal education and the capacities our society urgently needs.

For all these reasons, our campaign will focus on the aims of liberal education, on our progress in helping students achieve those aims, and on their value both to the economy and to our diverse and globally engaged democracy.

Some have asked whether AAC&U's emphasis on the outcomes of a liberal education may come at the cost of a strong focus on arts and sciences content. Others have questioned whether a curriculum attentive to society's current challenges will end up indoctrinating rather than liberating students. So let me finish with a note of reassurance. First, in all AAC&U's work, we have repeatedly emphasized that a strong foundation in arts and sciences fields is absolutely essential to liberal education. We have never recommended that faculty attempt to teach "skills" or "values" as topics in themselves, separate from the rich content that is basic to a good education. Rather, AAC&U strongly supports what might be described as "goals-across-the-curriculum"--that is, a simultaneous focus on important content and on teaching students the arts of analysis and argument that they will carry with them into any field of study or endeavor. Knowledge and intellectual capacities are integral dimensions of one another.

Second, to the extent that we succeed in cultivating the habits of mind basic to liberal education, we build our own inoculation against "indoctrinating" students with any particular point of view. Liberal education, by definition, introduces and examines diverse perspectives on any subject. A good liberal education further teaches students how to engage and evaluate competing claims and different perspectives while learning to form their own. It is for just these reasons that liberal education is so important both to a deliberative democracy and to an economy dependent on analysis and innovation.

All AAC&U members are warmly invited to join this campaign. Please visit the new Web site for Liberal Education and America's Promise (, where you'll find more information about the campaign and ways to become involved.

Previous Issues