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What Should It Mean to Be Liberally Educated in the 21st Century?

Derek Bok’s prescriptions for reclaiming the value of a liberal education.

August 19, 2020
 
 

Derek Bok, the only person to twice serve as Harvard’s president, is a rarity in higher education: a college leader whose top priority is the quality of undergraduate education.

Now 90, Bok has published a new book -- his 17th, by my count -- which takes a position decidedly out of step with other presidents’: he calls for a radical reimagining of general education requirements. His proposal is audacious: that colleges should do two things that institutions have studiously avoided -- to create a gen ed curriculum that explicitly tries to shape students’ character and outlook and to prepare undergraduates for the 21st-century economy.

Bok’s willingness to speak his mind bluntly was evident early. As a Stanford undergraduate, he informed that institution’s president that if Stanford ever hoped to become a top-tier institution, it needed to make a choice: to downplay sports and partying and focus single-mindedly on research and teaching. Stanford’s president immediately called Bok into his office, where, after a frank exchange of views, the two agreed to disagree.

Bok’s writings on higher education share certain common characteristics. For one thing, he does not hold back his punches. Bok is no apologist for today’s colleges. He reminds his readers that U.S. college graduates lag behind their foreign counterparts in tests of basic skills, that time spent studying has declined while grades have risen and that especially in STEM fields, the United States is doing a poor job of producing top native-born scientists, mathematicians and engineers. A third of STEM employees are immigrants, and half of engineering Ph.D.s are immigrants or international students.

In Higher Expectations: Can Colleges Teach Students What They Need to Know in the 21st Century? he decries colleges’ failure to rigorously assess student learning, prioritize teaching or better prepare graduates for today’s workplaces. One of his battle cries is that colleges and universities have failed to do in curricular design and teaching what they do in scholarship: to adopt reforms driven by evidence, data and scholarship.

Bok believes that colleges have a responsibility to produce graduates who are active and knowledgeable citizens and well prepared to function in a globally interconnected world, with high standards of ethical behavior and personal responsibility. He also argues that colleges ought to help students develop strong interpersonal skills, find greater purpose and meaning in their lives, and better prepare them for the challenges and vicissitudes of adult life.

If this sounds a bit familiar (not to say a bit utopian), it’s because his goals resemble those of the Association of American Colleges & Universities' LEAP essential learning outcomes. Bok is a member of the AAC&U National Leadership Council, and like the AAC&U, he emphasizes the importance of explicit knowledge and skills gained from a liberal education, high-impact practices, authentic assessments and signature work.

What sets Bok’s book apart is that it explicitly asks how institutions can achieve those essential learning outcomes.

What should colleges do? Bok is generally skeptical of the approach that institutions typically favor, which is to require a course or two in a particular area, such as diversity, cultural difference or cross-cultural understanding -- since there is no evidence that such an approach has any long-term impact on students’ attitudes and may be counterproductive if it lowers student motivation and engagement. Here's what he proposes.

To prepare more knowledgeable, engaged and active citizens, Bok argues that institutions might capitalize on their own diversity by promoting civil discourse on issues relating to race, class, gender and sexual orientation. They might incentivize students to participate in community service, involve students in voter registration drives, encourage them to serve as voluntary poll watchers and raise the status of and encourage participation in student government.

To prepare students to participate in a globally interdependent world, Bok identifies several bodies of knowledge that student need to acquire: in global problems, international relations, foreign languages and literature, and comparative and regional studies. His advice is rather than mandating a particular course or two, institutions might require students develop genuine competence in one of those areas.

As for helping students develop stronger moral character, Bok suggests that colleges strengthen enforcement of academic honesty policies, offer courses in moral reasoning aligned with particular majors or professions, and embed ethical problems in courses across the curriculum.

Bok, drawing on the research of psychologist Tim Clydesdale, is deeply concerned that the great majority of students “drift into careers without much conscious thought,” lacking long-term goals or a realistic plan to achieve them. He cites a number of initiatives that have sought, with some success, to help students acquire a clearer sense of purpose and direction, including great books, positive psychology and designing your life courses.

Bok is also interested in how colleges might promote interpersonal and intrapersonal skills -- teamwork, resilience, perseverance and creativity. Strategies that have shown some success include integrating collaborative problem solving and diversity related topics into classes, increasing participation in community service, athletics and other extracurricular activities, mind-set training, and establishing innovation labs and maker spaces.

I share Bok’s view that colleges should strive to educate the whole person and promote growth along every vector: cognitive, social, emotional and ethical. But naysayers might rightly ask, in a highly diverse society that emphasizes personal choice, is this goal realistic or even appropriate? Aren’t such efforts likely to provoke student resistance and lapse into indoctrination?

Bok’s response is two-pronged: that colleges can help students acquire a philosophy of life or interpersonal skills or cross-cultural competencies without imposing a uniform set of principles or ideals, and that if institutions are going to require gen ed courses, these should reflect a set of goals that go beyond mere breadth or distribution requirements.

His prescriptions include better preparing graduate students as educators, increasing collaboration between faculty and student life and support personnel, choosing campus leaders with a dedication to undergraduate students’ holistic development, and, potentially, developing a subset of faculty who are devoted to teaching and mentoring.

Bok cites surveys that show large faculty majorities favor a greater role for colleges in fostering students’ emotional and character development and nurturing greater understanding of other cultures. He is not blind to the obstacles that stand in the way of such a focus. But he argues forcefully and persuasively that colleges need to affirm a commitment to a 21st-century liberal education that goes well beyond vocational training or career preparation.

What is striking about Higher Expectations is that it takes college leaders' cliches and catchphrases seriously. The book argues that colleges ought to do what they claim to do: produce engaged citizens, promote difficult dialogues, make global learning a central part of the curriculum, rigorously assess learning outcomes and reaffirm the value of liberal education.

It would be easy to dismiss these ideas as "glittering generalities" (the barbed phrase that John C. Calhoun voiced to cast scorn on the Declaration of Independence). But changes in pedagogy are indeed taking place along the lines that George Kuh and AAC&U and Bok have called for. Across the country, institutions are implementing high-impact practices -- first-year seminars, learning communities, writing-intensive courses, undergraduate research and capstone courses -- and showing renewed interest in student' social, emotional, aesthetic and ethical development.

Adoption is slow and uneven and often compromised in execution. Nevertheless, we are witnessing the power of ideas, reinforced by the accreditation process and by pressure to increase retention and graduation rates.

If a liberal education truly is our ideal, Bok insists that we specify what we mean. We shouldn't simply invoke sound bites and platitudes about critical thinking or global awareness or ethical reasoning or intercultural and cross-cultural competence. We need to embed those ideas in our educational practice.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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