New Definition for Liberal Education

Academic group seeks to shift curricular debate away from numbers of courses and toward broader definition of knowledge.
January 11, 2007

The program for freshmen at Wagner College is based in part on "learning communities," in which students take a pair of courses together and then work in a local community that relates to the courses. Courses in biology and economics might both relate to the environment -- with the students working together in a community where a cancer cluster may be related to the environment. Faculty members -- all of them tenure track -- plan the entire program together, even as they teach their own classes.

The idea is to produce what Habits of the Heart termed "civic professionals," graduates with both knowledge in various subject areas and the ability to apply that knowledge to actual societal problems, according to Richard Guarasci, Wagner's president. Similar links between course work and community involvement extend through the Wagner curriculum. The idea is not to have students take courses and also do community service, but to have them linked.

Wagner's program is among those praised in "College Learning for the New Global Century," a report released Wednesday by the Association of American Colleges and Universities. The report outlines curricular goals for all colleges, but they are not of the "two semesters of science, two courses in writing" variety. Instead they are four broad "essential learning outcomes," with the idea that different kinds of institutions would assure these outcomes in different ways. Generally, the outcomes would encourage rigor of preparation, interdisciplinary and team learning, and links between experiences in and out of the classroom.

The outcomes are:

  • Knowledge of human cultures and the physical and natural world, which would include study of traditional arts and sciences disciplines.
  • Intellectual and practical skills, such as critical and creative thinking, written and oral communication, and quantitative literacy.
  • Personal and social responsibility, such as civic knowledge and engagement, "intercultural knowledge and competence," the ability to reason about ethics, and understanding of lifelong learning.
  • Integrative learning, including the ability to synthesize information and engage in both general and specific study.

The report also called for colleges to operate under seven "principles of excellence" that would guide their educational programs. Among them are for colleges to "aim high," to give students specific plans to achieve educational objectives, to "engage the big questions," and to "connect knowledge with choices and action." Colleges were also urged to assess the results of their efforts.

While the report highlights programs like Wagner's, the general theme is that there is far too little of the sort of college education that is needed. Carol Geary Schneider, president of the AAC&U, termed it a "stunning shortfall" in what students do in college and said that only a very small minority of students are benefiting from this type of education. Colleges need to be providing students with "a compass" for learning, rather than "narrow training programs," she said.

Schneider and others who spoke at a briefing on the report stressed the extent to which their ideas were consistent with what business leaders want from college graduates. And they released poll data to back up that assertion. While there are certain subject matters about which employers polled want to see colleges stress more (science and global issues), most of the areas on which they want more emphasis relate more broadly to team work, the ability to think critically, and problem solving skills.

Asked to identify areas on which colleges should place more or less emphasis, business leaders didn't name a single area for less emphasis. The following table shows areas on which they wanted more emphasis.

Proportion of Employers Seeking More Emphasis From Colleges on Various Skills

Skill % Seeking More Emphasis
Concepts and developments in science and technology 82%
Teamwork and collaboration 76%
Applying knowledge to real world settings 73%
Effective oral and written communication 73%
Critical thinking and analytic reasoning 73%
Understanding global issues and their impact 72%
Ability to locate, organize and evaluate information from multiple sources 70%
Ability to be innovative and think creatively 70%
Ability to solve complex problems 64%
Ability to work with numbers and understand statistics 60%
Understanding the role of the United States in the world 60%
Integrity and ethics 56%
Understanding cultural values and traditions 53%
Civic knowledge and participation, and community engagement 48%
Proficiency in a foreign language 46%
Knowledge of democracy and government 42%

A companion poll of recent college graduates found a high degree of overlap in their priorities as well.

Schneider and others involved with the new report said that keys to achieving these goals were engagement of students with faculty members and a move away from the approach of focusing only on one subject area at a time.

The Wagner program, for example, doesn't stop at the freshman year. Students take another pair of courses -- learning community style -- between freshman and senior years, and then in their senior year take a special "capstone seminar" in their major, linked to completion of a thesis and to extensive time in community work.

The college also takes assessment seriously. Devorah Lieberman, provost, said that the college gives the Collegiate Learning Assessment to freshmen, juniors, seniors, and fifth-year students in a joint undergraduate-MBA program. In addition, the college participates in the National Survey of Student Engagement and has teams of faculty members regularly analyze writing portfolios of students. Those faculty teams also then set up strategies for curricular additions whenever they seem some aspect of writing that needs improvement across the student body.

The idea, she said, is to move beyond the approach of just counting class hours or community service hours. "That's good information, but so what?" said Lieberman. What matters is the ability to see "all of the connections" between disciplines, and between disciplines and the real world.

The report also praised a number of other colleges for programs that are consistent with the advocated principles. Among those institutions cited:

  • Bard College -- for doing away with traditional majors and having students focus on broad, multidisciplinary topics, leading to a senior project.
  • Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis -- for adopting "principles of undergraduate learning" such as critical thinking and the integration and application of knowledge, and applying them to the entire curriculum.
  • Richland College of the Dallas Community College District -- for developing academic enrichment programs, on themes such as global studies, that students may take on top of traditional majors.
  • The University of Rochester, for adopting a series of programs to make entrepreneurship a skill that is reflected throughout the curriculum.

AAC&U officials briefed college leaders about their report at a meeting at Georgetown University and response was positive (although the audience included many institutions named as positive examples in the report, and so may not have been broadly representative).

To the extent people expressed skepticism at the meeting, it wasn't of the ideas, but of obstacles to enacting them broadly. Clifford Adelman, a long-time Education Department researcher who recently moved the Institute for Higher Education Policy, noted that with more and more students transferring, it becomes more difficult to provide consistent guidance over a college career. And he also noted the push by state legislators to have students "get it over with and get it over with fast." The implications of the report are that engineering students, for example, might want to take a five-year program, not just rush to graduate, he said.

Schneider said that these issues showed why the report's ideas were needed. If all campuses start using the "compasses " the report advocates, she said, students could move more seamlessly from institution to institution.


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