Liberal Education

Civic Learning in College: Our Best Investment in the Future of Our Democracy

This issue of Liberal Education emerges from the work of AAC&U’s partner project, Bringing Theory to Practice (BTtoP). Funded by the Charles Engelhard Foundation and wonderfully led by Don Harward, president emeritus of Bates College, and Sally Pingree, trustee of the Charles Engelhard Foundation, BTtoP has been a force for civic good across hundreds of colleges and universities and within higher education as a whole. The BTtoP project shows higher education at its best, restlessly striving to improve its own practices, making a transformative difference in the lives of students, and—optimally—creating productive community partnerships to solve long-standing and often festering societal problems. It is rare to see a philanthropic organization make such a comprehensive and long-term commitment to an important area of higher education reform. We at AAC&U are very grateful to be part of this highly productive partnership with the Engelhard Foundation and with Sally Pingree.

Collectively, BTtoP and several related projects—such as Campus Compact, Project Pericles, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities’ American Democracy Project, and AAC&U’s Core Commitments initiative—are building new social and civic capital for our society and for the future of our democracy. In addition to these bright stars, however, there are some dark clouds on the horizon. The good work so many are doing to make civic learning integral rather than marginal in college may yet be eclipsed.

The role of general education

General education, the “breadth” component of the curriculum that emerged virtually in tandem with the invention of disciplinary majors, has long been regarded as part of American higher education’s responsibility to the success of our democracy. This observation is frequently missed in discussions of college-level civic learning. Throughout the twentieth century, the rationale for general education—most fully articulated in General Education in a Free Society, the Harvard “Red Book” report of 1945—was that higher education educates citizens, and educated citizens need a rich understanding of the larger context in which they live, work, and contribute. This sense of a larger civic purpose has long animated AAC&U’s work, including our approach to general education. It was foundational to our 1990s work on the intersections between diversity and democracy, and reaffirmed in both of our signature twenty-first-century reports on college learning, Greater Expectations (2002) and College Learning for the New Global Century (2007).

If citizens need a “big picture” understanding of the context within which they make consequential choices, then the fields of study best suited to provide it include the liberal arts and sciences. It is these disciplines, primarily, that help individuals engage the larger world in all its complexity: physical foundations, societal landscapes, cultural diversities, and human quests for meaning and purpose. This is not to say, of course, that students must major in one of the liberal arts and sciences disciplines. Most don’t, and society needs graduates who are competent in engineering, health, technology, business, education, and the various occupational fields. It is to say, however, that every college student needs and deserves a well-constructed set of studies in the humanities, social sciences, arts, and sciences—with concerted attention to the intellectual, institutional, and societal foundations of constitutional democracy.

Unhappily, many college students get no such thing. In the occupational fields, many students experience only a dollop of the arts and sciences, with no particular attention to history, global issues and trends, or democracy. The much-admired economic “efficiency” of the for-profits comes, in the great majority of cases, from their having dispensed with general education altogether. Moreover, in the current policy rush to move students more swiftly and efficiently through their educational paces, many states are encouraging “double duty” for high school courses in the arts and sciences, with the result that the same course—say, a dual enrollment course in biology or history—may meet the general education requirements as well. In a report titled Degrees for What Jobs?, no less a force than the National Governors Association has recently weighed in with a recommendation that, since more job-related training is important for the economy, higher education will have to be weaned from its “long-established emphasis on broad liberal arts education.”

And so it is that, at a time when many more students are heading to college, the United States is in danger of squandering the opportunity to develop the liberally educated citizenry that both our economy and our democracy so urgently need, a citizenry possessed of that fuller understanding of the world—and of the global challenges we face. As many higher education leaders have noted with regret, we now treat higher learning as a kind of “private benefit” that is useful mainly for the added income graduates may expect.

Can we turn back the tide?

Just after World War II, the Truman Commission’s report on higher education in the United States declared that one of its “principal goals” was “education for a fuller realization of democracy in every phase of living.” One can hardly imagine our elected leaders making any such affirmation today. Yet there are hopeful developments on the horizon. One of these is the recent decision of the Lumina Foundation to throw its weight (and funding) behind the development of a “national qualifications profile” that will bring clarity to the meaning of the college degree—the associates’ degree, the bachelor’s degree, and the masters’ degree. The framework was released in “beta form” in January 2011 at AAC&U’s annual meeting, and will be vigorously tested through a family of funded national projects involving states, accreditors, and higher education associations—as well as hundreds of campuses and thousands of faculty. (I was one of the several authors of the initial draft.)

The Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP) reaffirms the centrality of general education in the arts and sciences to high-quality postsecondary degrees. But it goes even further in its embrace of civic learning by making it one of five essential elements in a postsecondary degree at all levels, from two-year to the master’s—and, by extension, beyond. Recognizing the historical role of general education in educating citizens, the authors of the DQP deliberately built from this foundation but took civic learning to a much higher level, tying it to civic dialogue, active engagement, and collaborative problem solving.

Given the daunting nature of the challenges we face, surely what our society needs most are well-educated people who can richly connect—as the DQP proposes—their content learning in the arts and sciences to active engagement in societal problem solving. Our democracy faces difficult days ahead, and we will need all the civic wisdom we can muster. Civic learning in college is the investment we need to make in the future of our grand experiment in this twenty-first century.

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