Liberal Education

Silent Spring

Though liberal education has assumed many forms over time and place, it has always been concerned with broader educational aims: cultivating 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. On the merits, we might expect that liberal education would be the uncontested preference of virtually everyone who goes to college.

And yet, American society today exhibits a striking schizophrenia towards the traditions of "liberal" or "liberal arts" education. Liberal education is at one and the same time prized, disguised, and resisted. On the one hand, liberal education is recognizably the philosophy of choice at the nation's most famous institutions, the campuses where admission is seen as virtually synonymous with the expansion of opportunity. There is, moreover, a persistent identification of liberal education with democratic freedom, excellence, and scientific progress that goes back to the revolutionary period when many civic and political leaders both extolled the liberal arts and also expanded them to embrace the scientific and practical needs of the republic. W.E.B. du Bois reaffirmed the interchangeability of "liberal education" and "excellence" when he argued, a century ago, that future leaders in the African-American community deserved a college-level liberal education, that is, the best kind of higher education, not just narrow occupational training. Most accredited colleges and universities still espouse this liberal education ideal and typically require that their students take some fraction of their studies in fields and programs aligned with the broader aims of education.

Moreover, liberal education at the start of the twenty-first century is anything but a static tradition. Our nation's campuses are dotted with innovative programs that indisputably are reinventions of liberal education for a new era and a newly diverse population of students. Consider the signature curricula and pedagogies that have begun to flower over the last twenty years: first-year seminars, writing-across-the-disciplines, undergraduate research, topically linked learning communities, programs in intercultural and global learning, service learning, interdisciplinary capstone courses and projects. Each of these is a recognizable and broadly influential effort to help students become liberally educated and, toward that goal, to make their learning more engaged, better connected with the community, more "hands-on," and more educationally powerful. These new curricular and pedagogical incarnations of liberal education are so common that U.S. News and World Report is now gathering systematic data on them and featuring good examples in its annual report on "America's Best Colleges."

On the other hand, even as specific practices within liberal education are being reinvigorated, the tradition itself is largely concealed from public notice. The innovative programs just noted are heavily promoted by the academy but rarely described in campus promotional materials as "liberal" or "liberal arts" education. Instead, they are presented to students as the "Central State Plan for Student Learning," or "New Excellence at Magnolia College." Thus, students who participate in them may never be told that they are engaged in liberal education. U.S. News, even while covering these innovative "Programs That Work," does not mention liberal education.

One reason for this silence, of course, is the contested standing of "liberal" in American political life. Another may be the fear that liberal arts education, offered over the millennia mainly to the privileged few, bears the lingering stain of "elitism." The academy is, on the whole, far more at home with what Sheldon Rothblatt, in a new AAC&U monograph entitled The Living Arts, calls the "tepid" language of general education, even though general education is at best only one strand within a much richer set of liberal arts aspirations and practices.

Given this conspiracy of voluntary silence, there is little public understanding or even awareness of liberal education, despite its continuing influence on both established and innovative curricula. Studies show that the public does not value it as named, but does value the outcomes to which it leads. Campus leaders report that students also don't know what liberal or liberal arts education is and that even many faculty are uncertain. Simultaneously, political leaders routinely endorse workforce development as both a priority and the primary rationale for the expansion of postsecondary education.

Given this context, the nation is in danger of squandering an extraordinary and unprecedented opportunity. With millions of students of all ages and backgrounds both aspiring to higher learning and actually enrolling, a new majority of Americans could, in principle, now achieve the kind of capacious liberal education once reserved for a tiny elite.

AAC&U's report, Greater Expectations: A New Vision for Learning as a Nation Goes to College, and the subject of the annual meeting represented in this issue, recommends that every student deserves a liberal education, one redefined to embrace and address the way knowledge is actually used in the world, including the world of work and civil society. It calls for a new synthesis between liberal and practical education throughout the educational experience: "Liberal education must . . . become consciously, intentionally pragmatic, while it remains conceptually rigorous; its test will be in the effectiveness of graduates to use knowledge thoughtfully in the wider world."

The challenges confronting today's education leaders, therefore, are two. The first is summoning the vision, the will, and the long-term commitment to coalesce innovations already flowering around us into more intentional, integrative, and powerful frameworks for student learning. And the second is the willingness to call these innovations what they are: a twenty-first century vision for liberal education.

The future of liberal education and the future of our core educational missions are one and the same.

Previous Issues