[Paleopsych] CHE: Putting Liberal Education on the Radar Screen

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Wed Sep 28 19:32:42 UTC 2005

Putting Liberal Education on the Radar Screen
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.9.23


    As we prepare for the next round of college applications, what issues
    are on everyone's minds? We will be admitting one of the largest
    classes ever to pursue a college degree. Many applicants are, no

    preoccupied with such pressing questions as whether they will do well
    on the SAT or make the right college choice. Their parents might be
    worrying about tuition costs, and policy makers about continuing to
    increase access to higher education, improving graduation rates,
    decreasing college costs, and putting into effect new forms of
    institutional accountability. But what about learning?

    The national conversations about affordability, access, graduation
    rates, and accountability are important, of course. But we also need a
    parallel public conversation about the kinds of learning today's
    graduates need -- a conversation that directly engages students and
    their parents.

    With increasing urgency, employers in a wide array of sectors are
    calling for graduates who are skilled communicators, scientifically
    literate, adept at quantitative reasoning, oriented to innovation,
    sophisticated about diversity, and grounded in cross-cultural
    exchange. Civic leaders are expressing concern about declining rates
    of civic knowledge among the young and what that might mean for the
    future of our democracy. What we call "liberal education" has long
    responded to such important public concerns, now in new ways, as
    colleges are experimenting with how to meet 21st-century needs -- for
    example through asking undergraduates to conduct research,
    thematically linking a series of courses, and promoting service
    learning, to name but a few strategies.

    There is little evidence, however, that the public is aware of such
    changes in liberal education, or that high-school students and their
    parents have been part of any discussion about what graduates need to
    know in today's world. Is it any wonder that some students have come
    to see the college degree as just a ticket to be punched on the way to
    their first job?

    Although liberal education has changed over time, it has always been
    concerned with cultivating intellectual and ethical judgment, helping
    students comprehend and negotiate their relationships with the larger
    world, and preparing them for lives of civic responsibility and
    leadership. It is a philosophy of education rather than a set of
    majors or a curriculum at a particular kind of institution. It is a
    focus not just at small liberal-arts colleges, but throughout higher
    education. Today it helps students, both in their general-education
    courses and in their major fields of study, analyze important
    contemporary issues like the social, cultural, and ethical dimensions
    of the AIDS crisis or meeting the needs of an aging population.

    But liberal education and what it means have slipped off the public
    radar screen. That's why the Association of American Colleges and
    Universities has begun a decade-long campaign, Liberal Education and
    America's Promise: Excellence for Everyone as a Nation Goes to
    College, to expand public understanding of the value of a liberal

    In preparation for the campaign, we organized a series of eight focus
    groups with college juniors and seniors and college-bound high-school
    students from four regions of the country. The responses from all
    eight groups are serious and sobering.

    Today's high-school students are largely uninformed about the college
    curriculum and uncertain about its demands, while the resources
    available to guide their preparation for college life are very
    limited. Students do not regard high-school guidance counselors or
    colleges themselves as trusted sources of information. Operating in a
    vacuum, they have little understanding of the kinds of learning that
    either their future employers or their faculty members see as
    important. While some believe that the college degree is little more
    than a "piece of paper," most students do recognize that something
    important goes on during the college years. The problem is they don't
    really know what that "something" is or ought to be.

    We asked our focus groups to examine a list of college outcomes and
    identify which are the most and least important to them. The rankings
    produced across the groups are remarkably consistent. What students
    most value is their own preparation for professional success. They
    believe that such things as maturity, work habits, self-discipline,
    and time management are what they need to achieve in college. A few of
    the college juniors and seniors also recognize the importance of
    communication, problem solving, and critical thinking. Whether they
    rank those outcomes high or low, however, none of the students we
    interviewed identify specific courses, assignments, or activities that
    help prepare them to meet those outcomes.

    The most alarming finding has to do with what both current and
    prospective students consider the least important outcomes of a
    college education: values and ethics, an appreciation of cultural
    diversity, global awareness, and civic responsibility. When we further
    asked students about the importance of deepening their knowledge of
    American culture and history, of cultures outside the United States,
    and of scientific knowledge and its importance in the world -- three
    staples of a strong liberal education -- each ranked at the bottom of
    desired outcomes.

    Today's students understand that college is important to their success
    in the work force, but they do not recognize its role in preparing
    them as citizens, community participants, and thoughtful people. They
    do not expect college to enable them to better understand the wider
    world; they view college as a private rather than a public good.

    As a result, they also seem to believe that learning is mostly about
    individual development and simple information transfer. That is why
    they tend to think that if they have already studied a topic in high
    school (for example, American history or science), there is no logical
    reason to ever study it again. Moreover, we found little difference
    between the outcomes valued by high-school seniors and those valued by
    college students. That suggests that colleges are not conveying the
    importance of liberal education to their students.

    Indeed, our focus-group findings indicate a profound lack of
    understanding about the tradition of liberal education. We found that
    high-school students are almost entirely unfamiliar with the term
    "liberal education" and that college students are only somewhat
    familiar with it. Some of those who have heard the term tend to
    associate it only with traditional liberal arts and sciences, rather
    than with a broader philosophy of education important for all
    students, whatever their chosen field of study. Some think it occurs
    only in the arts and humanities, rather than in the sciences. Among
    those students who associate liberal education with learning critical
    thinking, almost all see it only as something that happens in those
    parts of the curriculum considered "general education," rather than in
    detailed studies in particular fields.

    The confusion goes on. For some students, a liberal education is one
    that is politically skewed to the left. As one college student put it,
    it is "education directed toward alternative methods, most often
    political in nature." Another college student remarked, "Initially, I
    thought and heard of 'liberal' as in Democrats and politics. I am
    conservative, so my initial reaction was to brace myself, set up a
    defense of my values."

    The lack of understanding among students -- and their parents -- about
    what a liberal education is matters profoundly to the futures of the
    students themselves. It matters to how well prepared they will be as
    the workers of tomorrow and as citizens in our democracy. But it also
    matters to the future of that democracy. We have long passed the time
    when we could worry only about preparing the elite, the leaders of
    society. In today's complex and global environment, shouldn't we
    aspire to provide a liberal education to all who pursue a college

    That is what we need to be talking about -- and not just among

    Carol Geary Schneider is president, and Debra Humphreys is vice
    president for communications and public affairs, at the Association of
    American Colleges and Universities.

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