New Directions for Higher Education: Q&A with AAC&U President Carol Geary Schneider on Liberal Education

In April, NEJHE launched its New Directions for Higher Education series to examine emerging issues, trends and ideas that have an impact on higher education policies, programs and practices.
The first installment of the series featured Philip DiSalvio, dean of the College of Advancing & Professional Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, interviewing Carnegie Foundation President Anthony Bryk about the future of the credit hour; the second featured DiSalvio’s interview with and Publisher Mark Kantrowitz about student debt; the third, DiSalvio’s interview with Lumina Foundation President and CEO Jamie P. Merisotis about Lumina’s commitment to enrolling and graduating more students from college; and most recently, his interview with American Council on Education (ACE) President Molly Corbett Broad about the efforts ACE is making to raise educational attainment in the U.S. and around the world.

In this installment of the series, DiSalvio interviews Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), on why liberal education is essential to America’s global future.

The context

From its founding in 1915, AAC&U has focused on advancing and strengthening liberal education for all college students, regardless of their intended careers. AAC&U sees liberal education as a philosophy of education that empowers individuals with broad knowledge and transferable skills and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity and change. This liberal education approach, characterized by challenging encounters with important issues, is more a way of studying than a specific course or field of study. AAC&U maintains that this can be achieved at all types of colleges and universities.

While some argue that the best possible preparation to meet the challenges of the 21st century is a liberal education, others say that liberal arts colleges and the concepts behind the usefulness of a liberal education have been falling short in communicating the purpose of a college education, what a good education looks like and how education should fit into the higher education fabric of the nation.

Proclamations about “the death of liberal arts,” and reports about student debt and the unemployability of those with an undergraduate liberal education abound. Others ask how practical versus idealistic college should be. In a recent New York Times interview, Hunter Rawlings, the president of the Association of American Universities, stated: “You just don’t know what your education is going to result in. Many of the kids graduating from college these days are going to hold a number of different jobs in their lives, and many of those jobs have not yet been invented. For a world like that, what’s the best education? It seems to me it’s a very general education that enables you to think critically.”

Carol Geary Schneider provides a perspective on the state of U.S. liberal education today.

The interview

DiSalvio: The broad goals of liberal education have endured even as the courses and requirements that comprise a liberal education have changed. How has liberal education changed over the years? Is it relevant today considering the rapid pace and complexity of change in today’s global economy?

Schneider: There are three broad goals of liberal and liberal arts education that have endured not only just over the years, but over the millennia. In each era, we rethink the meaning, the content and the approaches through which we address those goals, but the goals themselves endure. I’d also argue that there’s a 21st century addition to liberal arts education.

The first enduring goal of liberal education is the acquisition of a broad understanding of the society of which individuals are a part; this requires broad knowledge about science, culture, society, history and the kind of knowledge needed to navigate the world. For a long time, liberal education was restricted to very few people, and those people were leaders in society. Now we have a more expansive understanding of who needs this kind of broad knowledge. Understanding the world of which one is a part is the first core goal of a good liberal education.

The second enduring goal of liberal education is developing the powers of the mind. In earlier centuries, these powers included grammar, rhetoric, logic and dialectic. Today, we use the vocabulary of critical inquiry or communication skills. But when we talk about capacities like critical thinking or information literacy or communication fluency, we are talking about powers of the mind—the adaptive capabilities that enable people to reason through complex questions and to use evidence-based analysis to inform their choices and actions. Fostering these capacities is absolutely essential to a liberal or liberating education.

The third enduring goal is ensuring that learners acquire, through their studies and through the mentoring that’s part of those studies, a strong sense of ethical responsibility to themselves and to society, as well as a strong sense of their responsibilities as citizens. Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin and the founders of this republic all understood civic virtue as necessary for sustaining a just and self-governing society. Ethical and civic responsibility is as essential today as it was in their time.

These enduring goals are addressed in new ways today. Knowledge has changed. The skills we are discussing have certainly changed, especially in the age of digital revolution. And our understanding of civic responsibility has evolved as we have become more conscious of the challenges and responsibilities of living in a diverse democracy—not just a democracy, not just a republic, but a society that really respects all people and all perspectives.

I think those are the three big goals of liberal and liberal arts education over the millennia. I would argue that in the 20th and 21st centuries, there is a fourth goal. AAC&U describes it as integrative and applied learning. Other people may have other language for it—flexible learning, adaptive learning—but it is the notion that students need to learn how to integrate their knowledge, their powers of the mind and their sense of responsibility and to apply that learning to real problems in real settings. That kind of knowledge can then be used to work through problems encountered in the economy and problems we face as a globally engaged democracy.

To my mind, teaching students to apply their learning to new problems and contexts needs to be signature achievement of liberal education in the 21st century. The focus is not just on what we know and understand, but on what we can do and how well we take responsibility for the application of knowledge in real-world settings. When it’s described in that way, liberal education is not only relevant, but indispensable. It’s the most relevant and powerful form of education we’ve ever developed—that any society has developed—because it places such strong emphasis on teaching people to use their intellectual faculties and their knowledge of the complexities of the wider world in order to reason through new problems and make contributions both to their workplaces and to our democratic society.

So for all these reasons, AAC&U has taken the position that liberal education is not only our most powerful form of learning, but that it is, in fact, the best form of learning for all students—not just for some students. That is the final way in which liberal education is evolving today. In the 20th century, we thought of liberal education mainly as something that was done in liberal arts and sciences disciplines. The academy itself constructed a very clear dividing line between liberal arts learning, on the one hand, and professional and career fields, on the other. AAC&U’s approach to liberal education says that those dividing lines need to be erased and that the forms of learning I am talking about apply to learners in all fields—career and technical fields as well as the arts and sciences. We owe it to every student who comes to higher education to make sure that, in ways appropriate to their career goals and their choice of academic discipline, they actually acquire all the hallmark capabilities that characterize liberal education in the 21st century.

DiSalvio: Under your leadership, AAC&U launched Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP), a public advocacy and campus action initiative designed to engage students and the public with what really matters in a college education for the 21st century. With the LEAP initiative, AAC&U has set out to champion the importance of a 21st century liberal education. How will LEAP accomplish the goals of that initiative?

Schneider: The LEAP campaign is organized around a robust set of “Essential Learning Outcomes”—all of which are best developed by a contemporary liberal education. Described in College Learning for the New Global Century these essential learning outcomes and a set of “Principles of Excellence” provide a new framework to guide students’ cumulative progress through college

Today, and in the years to come, college graduates need higher levels of learning and knowledge as well as strong intellectual and practical skills to navigate this more demanding environment successfully and responsibly.

Other areas of work around the LEAP initiative are campus action, public advocacy and evidence. In many ways, campus action is the centerpiece of the LEAP effort. LEAP now formally involves 350 colleges, universities and community colleges working in ways appropriate to their individual missions and their own students.

In addition, we have a formal partnership with the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges and with the New American Colleges and Universities, a consortium of private colleges and universities interested in the blend of liberal arts, career programs and civic learning. All these institutions and systems have adopted some version of the LEAP Essential Learning Outcomes.

In terms of public advocacy we wanted to test out advocacy strategies in local contexts with local state priorities. Rather than trying simply to make the case for liberal education as an invaluable resource for everyone from 30,000 feet above ground level, we prefer to connect liberal education with the growth agenda in Wisconsin, for example, with the access to excellence and equity agenda in California, with work already going on in Texas as they rethink their core curriculum, with efforts to improve educational performance in Indiana, and so on.

We have tried hard to ensure that LEAP’s work intersects with the college completion agenda, which is probably the dominant public priority at both the national and state levels across the nation. But we go beyond the completion agenda by focusing, not just on whether students have achieved the right number of credits in a timely fashion, but on whether students are completing with high levels of “demonstrated achievement” on the Essential Learning Outcomes.

The work we have done on what are called “high-impact practices” has demonstrated that when students frequently participate in forms of learning that ask them to do significant analytical, creative, problem-solving work, they are more likely to complete college as well as more likely to achieve the Essential Learning Outcomes. The high-impact practices include first-year seminars and experiences, common intellectual experiences, learning communities, writing-intensive courses, collaborative assignments and projects, undergraduate research, diversity/global learning, service learning, community-based learning, internships, and capstone courses and projects. There is new evidence emerging about additional high-impact practices that also result in higher rates of completion and better learning for students; we will undoubtedly revise the list of high-impact practices as we go forward.

Especially successful as a form of advocacy is our work with employers. Employers are urgently requesting that higher education do a better job of preparing students with the full set of Essential Learning Outcomes that LEAP advances. We have tried to get out of the way and let employers speak about this in their own voices and using their own vocabularies through a series of national surveys we have done.

Another form of advocacy is the LEAP President’s Trust. This includes over 100 college, university and community college presidents who care passionately about the educational and public value of liberal education, and who have committed themselves to use the pulpits that presidents routinely command in order to make the case for liberal education.

The employment of authentic evidence is another area of work in the LEAP campaign. We have been working on employing the evidence in two ways. One way is to build tools and resources for faculty to use in assessing the extent to which students are, in fact, achieving the learning outcomes that LEAP advances. Secondly, we are providing syntheses from various available national studies of what the evidence shows about students’ current progress, or lack thereof.

The portrait that we have put together is not an encouraging one. It shows, for example, that only about one-third of students report that they’ve made significant gains in college on global learning, an outcome that everybody today would agree is an essential part of the knowledge one needs for 21st-century competence. Only about 50% of students report that they’ve made significant gains in college on learning to engage perspectives different from their own. And ETS data have been showing us for years that on their tests for critical thinking, mathematical competence and writing, only about 10% of graduating seniors are proficient. Taken together, these and other studies indicate that we have a long way to go in order to achieve the goals that LEAP is promoting.

DiSalvio: Some argue that the best possible preparation to meet the economic development challenges of the 21st century is a liberal education. Is that realistic, given the rising tuition costs and burdensome debt and the labor market itself?

Schneider: I think we have to make a very clear distinction between an educational strategy that is focused on short-term costs and one that is focused on the long-term interests of our entire society and the individuals within it. We believe with Tom Friedman that liberal education has historically been America’s “secret sauce.” It has cultivated, for at least a segment of the population, those innovative, adaptive, creative capacities that are so central to an innovative economy.

While it’s always been true that the U.S. economy has prospered through innovation and resilience and adaptability, in the current highly competitive global economy—with many nations now rising through their own new forms of economic creativity—it really matters that we invest in forms of learning that allow us to remain the world leader in terms of economic innovation and creativity. So to focus educational investment on short-term training for immediately available jobs, with no attention to whether or not graduates have the intellectual skills and knowledge needed to adapt to the next job and the next industry is to shortchange such individual learners and to shortchange America’s competitive future.

Yes, the kind of education we’re talking about cannot be done on the cheap. But the U.S. made its way to world standing, economically and as a democracy, by taking investment in education seriously. I think we need to recognize the historical sources of our strengths as a society and make sure that those strengths are being reinforced rather than eroded as we go forward.

I would also add, of course, that there are many ways that we can reduce costs within higher education. For example, we’re spending a lot of money on courses that never were designed to help students. If the only point of a course is to “deliver content” and see whether students can pass multiple-choice tests on that content, we can indeed “deliver” such courses via technology much more efficiently and cost-effectively. But, our top goal should be to ensure that all college students have frequent opportunities to go way beyond “content recognition” to meaningful competency development. You learn evidence-based reasoning by actual practice with evidence-based reasoning. I believe that higher education should do “content delivery” as inexpensively as possible while redeploying resources to high-quality competency development.

DiSalvio: Those who look at the intellectual benefits of liberal education may be saying that learning for learning’s sake is its most significant benefit. But aren’t the public and politicians and policymakers more likely to be swayed by other arguments that they deem more practical?

Schneider: When we launched LEAP, AAC&U made an official determination that defending liberal education as “learning for its own sake” was a non-starter in persuading skeptics. The notion that the liberal arts are primarily intended to cultivate a love of learning and personal development, leaving it to the individual to decide how that learning and development can be applied once they left college is a 20th-century idea. The argument we make today is that liberal education, when it is done well, is actually developing practical intelligence. Of course, we do hope that students will come to love learning for its own sake and we definitely want them to become people who are committed to continuous lifelong learning.

But in making the case for the long-term value of liberal learning, you do not start with “learning for its own sake.” If you are talking about an 18-year-old, you start with the fact that the student is struggling to understand why she is in college in the first place. You need to help her understand how what she is studying connects to the life she hopes to make for herself and that it is contributing to her development of an adaptable, portable set of capabilities and a flexible, adaptable base of knowledge. And you do that by getting her really involved in making connections between what she is learning and real-world problems that she can see need to be solved. Some of those problems will be enduring ones, such as those concerning identity and religion and social justice. Others will be contemporary problems, such as sustainability and climate change and what we do about hunger in our own communities or about HIV/AIDS.

Novice learners must be helped to see connections between the world they are living in and the lives they hope to make for themselves, on the one hand, and what they are studying, on the other. If you do that well, then I think they will also come to love learning for its own sake. But we start with their need to make connections between life and learning. And the same is obviously true for all those students who are coming to college as returning adults. They’ve already learned a lot from being out there in the real world. We need to connect their informal learning to the studies they will pursue. We need to recognize what they’ve already achieved through other means. We need to be prepared to validate forms of liberal learning that didn’t happen within formal academic settings. And all of this is intended to ensure that liberal learning is practical and useful and that it helps people make better lives, create better societies, and do better work. Once you describe it that way, then I think it’s easier to make the case to policymakers.

DiSalvio: In the 2010 AAC&U “Quality Imperative” report, the AAC&U Board of Directors states that, “It should not be liberal education for some, and narrow or illiberal education for others … access to educational excellence is the equity challenge of our time.” Yet, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, first-generation and disadvantaged students are less likely to take courses in the humanities, foreign languages and the arts, and are more likely to enroll in institutions and programs that provide narrow training. What must happen to equalize access?

Schneider: First of all we need to shine a strong, searing spotlight on the inequities. One of the things that’s so striking to me is that we recognize that our K-12 system was built along highly stratified lines. Some students are moved into college prep courses and tracks, while other students are moved into work tracks that are much less demanding educationally and much less likely to prepare them for college.

K-12 policy has been trying to undo this stratification and has been emphasizing the importance of high-quality, internationally competitive “common core standards” for all students—not just for some students. The goal of the No Child Left Behind program was to provide access to excellence for everyone, but it was deeply flawed in its tactics. Within the K-12 framework, we’ve had a dawning realization that our future as a society and our decency as a democracy depend on creating equal opportunities for students to learn at high levels as they go from preschool through high school.

Oddly, we’re not applying much of any of that to the discussion of higher education. People have been perfectly happy to accept a tiered system, or tracking, within higher education. In fact, many of the public policy priorities in several states deepen and accelerate and accentuate inequities and stratifications that already exist. For example, I’m thinking of policies—in states from the South to the North—that focus on getting students into certificate and short-term credential programs with the ultimate goal of getting them quickly into the workplace and, thereby, reducing the unemployment rate.

Questions are not being asked about whether those programs are helping students develop the broad knowledge, strong intellectual skill sets, anchored sense of responsibility and demonstrated capacity to deal with new complex problems that characterize a liberal education. We’re just asking whether they can manage computerized records; if they can, then they can have a job. AAC&U is trying to take dead aim at that deepening stratification by getting employers to acknowledge that people who are locked into mental cubicles are not promotable. And if people know how to do only one set of tasks and one job, then they will be employable only as long as that particular set of tasks needs to be done and as long as that particular job exists. If people want to be promotable and adaptable, they need a broad skill set, not one that has been narrowly tailored to meet the needs of a specific job.

Our surveys have repeatedly shown that employers do not recommend study in one particular field alone. Sixty percent of them recommend that college students pursue a combination of broad-plus-specialized learning, and 20%of them recommend that students pursue broad learning only. So just one in five employers—and we’ve asked this question several times in our surveys—would say that the right strategy for a young person or a returning person is to zero in on one field and become competent in it, much less to zero in on one set of skills that are a subset of a field, and then hope to make a career or an income-generating set of career choices on that foundation. It won’t work.

I think the right strategy is to focus on where the job market is going broadly. It’s churning out 30 million jobs every year that didn’t exist the previous year. We want to prepare people to succeed in those newly emerging jobs, not to be left in the jobs that are being outsourced or are simply disappearing. It is important to get employers to say that we need people who have portable, adaptable, resilient skills—not people who just know how to do one thing. And we need to rally as a higher education community around a commitment to inclusive excellence and against the stratification of opportunity that we already have in our educational system.



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