Liberal Education

Liberal Education: A for Creativity; D- for Communication....

Americans have always seen strong public value in the practice of "declaring fundamentals," whether in the form of constitutional principles, bills of rights, or statements of essential commitment. Today, as higher education experiences ever more dynamic growth, we need a new "Declaration of Commitment"-- a commitment and a campaign for the centrality of liberal education as a framework for each student's college learning.

"Liberal education" is not a currently fashionable term. It has fallen into disuse, in part because of the beleaguered standing of "liberal" values and policies in our national politics, and in part because of liberal education's ties to an era when higher learning was severely restricted to a fortunate few.

Embrace of the term is further impeded by the widespread uncertainty as to whether liberal education refers primarily to general education, or to specific disciplines in the arts and sciences, or to the educational practices found in the residential liberal arts college.

These complications notwithstanding, the academy should move decisively beyond them. Liberal education has always stood for the very best kind of learning our society knows how to offer. We need to reclaim that legacy and to insist that excellence in liberal education is an equal opportunity commitment--important to every student and to every field of study.

As the articles in this issue of Liberal Education suggest, campus leaders and faculty members are divided on the long-term outlook for liberal education. Many supporters view it as dangerously vulnerable to an age of market values and consumer dominance. Markets, with their orientation to short-term outcomes, are not well-attuned to forms of learning that pay off over a lifetime.

Other observers, more critical of the academy itself, believe that liberal education will fall victim to its own rigidity. Liberal education, these critics suggest, is so ensconced in disciplinary silos and so resistant to the pragmatic inclinations of the wider society, that it is likely to go the way of the classics, moving inexorably from centrality to subsidized marginality.

My own view is more optimistic. At AC&U, we are privy to the really extraordinary work being done on literally hundreds of campuses to revitalize the actual practice of liberal education. It's hard to be pessimistic in the face of so much creativity--and at so many different kinds of institutions.

But I also believe that we need to join forces in new ways to build public recognition and support for the importance of the changes campuses are already making. Or, to put it differently: Liberal education at the dawn of the twenty-first century rates an A for creativity and D- (or worse) for communication.

A for creativity? The reality--largely unreported either within or beyond the academy itself-- is that many thoughtful campus leaders are already far advanced in the necessary work of adapting liberal education to a changing time. Underneath the sturm und drang of the so-called culture wars--an inevitable and historical signal that an important tradition is in transition--faculty members at many institutions have been rethinking their educational goals and changing their pedagogical practices, direct and online, to make liberal education more purposeful, more powerful, and more engaging.

Do the changes being enacted really advance liberal education? Yes they do! Both new curricula and new pedagogies are fundamentally engaged with the oldest goals of liberal education--developing analytical and ethical judgment and preparing students to take responsibility for the world around them. At the same time, there's a strong new emphasis on liberal education that both engages and makes a difference to the wider world. From the Frontiers program at Goucher College, to "Big Problems" courses at the University of Chicago, to community-based collaborative projects done by every senior at Portland State, to the Integrated Studies Program at North Seattle Community College, contemporary undergraduates are learning how to put their knowledge at the service of their society. In a society renowned for its innovative spirit, liberal education's new emphasis on the combination of analytical, creative, and practical intelligence is a welcome turn.

But that D- for communication is more than just a detail. Previous proponents of liberal education have done a fabulously successful job of communicating to an entire society that liberal education is a) impractical by both definition and preference, b) appropriate primarily for an affluent elite who can afford to acquire job skills in graduate school, and c) found only at liberal arts colleges, which now serve a tiny fraction of the college-going population.

Campuses, even those engaged in wonderfully creative educational renewal, do very little to change this rarified view of liberal education. The academy is reinventing the practice of liberal education--but seems bent on ensuring that no one knows. More often than not, the most creative designs for liberal education come well-concealed by their labels: the University Studies Program, or the Green Valley Plan for Student Learning. Only insiders recognize that these are also plans for liberal education!

Once students are on campus, they continue to hear very little about liberal education. For example, a recent study at Portland State University found that only 12 percent of first year students and 13.5 percent of seniors reported hearing frequently from faculty about liberal education. Although faculty themselves reported more frequent discussions, clearly their communications are not connecting. (See Liberal Education, Vol 84, No 2, Spring 1998.)

Next year, AC&U's Greater Expectations report on quality in undergraduate learning will strongly recommend both the experience and the language of a twenty-first century liberal education. In recommending the practice, we'll be pointing to very specific examples of educational innovation on our campuses.

In recommending the language of liberal education, however, we know we need to overcome several decades of cultivated avoidance. We'll be talking together about our willingness to break the habit and take on the challenge of renewing a legacy.

We believe we can make a contemporary case for liberal education. There is strength, after all, in well-planned alliances. In the end, that is the strength of our Association.

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