Redefining liberal education and building stronger public support for its concepts is no easy task. So when the Association of American Colleges and Universities a year ago announced a campaign  to do those things, it was perceived as requiring a 10-year campaign.
One year in, hundreds of academic leaders active in the association gathered in Washington to talk about -- among other topics -- progress on the campaign. Some of the key areas for consideration were a set of principles that the association hopes to draft to define liberal education, and data that suggest some notable gaps between student perceptions of the quality of their general education and their actual knowledge base.
On Friday, participants discussed a draft set of principles, likely to be revised before they are issued next fall at the earliest. The draft talks about how changes in the global economy make it more vital than ever to provide students with an “empowering liberal education." Rather than recommending specific courses, the report outlines themes, or “learning outcomes,” from the very generally academic -- quantitative literacy and knowledge in the sciences and humanities -- to those that also relate to ethics and society broadly, such as civic knowledge and engagement.
The draft encourages undergraduate research and study abroad opportunities as an essential ingredient of the cake, rather than just the icing. For academics, that might be old news, but “the public is oblivious to this,” said Carol Geary Schneider, president of AACU. “There are … very strong reform movements, and no demand from the public.” Schneider told the crowd of over 100 faculty members and administrators that the goals in the draft “should be familiar to you, we took them from your campus statements.”
The point of Friday’s session was to open the draft up to suggestions. “Every word is negotiable,” Schneider said.
One thing that people seemed to agree on quickly was that, currently, students’ take on general education requirements is that they are loosely connected courses in an outdated system that, annoyingly, wants to delay their graduation. The draft suggests giving students a “compass,” or cluing them into the educational outcomes they are shooting for.
“I like the idea of giving students a ‘compass,’ ” said Jonathan Daube, president of Manchester Community College, in Connecticut. Administrators “should suggest to faculty that they explain to students why they’re taking [a particular course outside of their major]. It can’t be something we just put into faculty mailboxes.”
Bernice Braid, director emeritus of the honors program at Long Island University, agreed, saying that students need to be told why a breadth of knowledge will make them better professionals and better citizens. “It has to be more than ‘learning how to read a poem will change your life,’ ” she said.
Carol Lucey, president of Western Nevada Community College, said that having firm principles for a good liberal education would help her do assessments that she can share with policy makers, and would help her talk with students who “come to college with a single agenda: job training.” She added that, in today’s global economy, a research lab technician might have to be prepared to become a medical technician “if that job is outsourced in a year and a half,” and that a broad education will equip them to make such transitions.
In an effort to embrace thematic learning outcomes, as opposed to rigid lists of required classes, committees at Ohio State University and the University of Texas at Austin recently issued reports  identifying educational goals that can pervade many courses, so that students are working toward them even within their major. Ethics, for example, can be treated in physical and social science classes, as can writing, and students may push back less if they have a greater range of choices with which to fill requirements.
Figuring out the right way for each campus to promote liberal education was also a theme at a discussion Saturday of the AACU's recent report  on the gap between the general education students think they have received and evidence about the actual quality of their knowledge. Ross Miller, director of programs for the AACU, acknowledged that there are problems with many measures of student knowledge. But even accepting those flaws, he said, it's clear that there is considerable evidence that students aren't emerging from college with all the skills they need.
Rather than critiquing those national studies, he said, educators should accept that "there is something going on here that is not quite right" and that ultimately "we don't have a good idea of how well we are doing."
Colleges are better off if they provide "rich local data" that show the impact of a college education on students -- and then use that data to improve programs, he said.
Judith Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, said that accrediting agencies could help -- in that they were now pushing colleges to provide such data. Eaton said that this represented a significant change. Five or more years ago, she said, accreditors were doing "an audit of process" and looking to see if colleges had some sort of system in place to measure student learning. Now, most accrediting agencies are looking at the data produced by those systems: "evidence of student achievement."
Eaton said that this shift was a good one, and would reinforce the efforts of AACU to promote liberal education. But she was less encouraging about the potential impact of the pending reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which may or may not move ahead  in the coming months. Provisions in both the Senate and House of Representatives versions of the bills, she said, would ask accreditors to collect much more information from colleges on graduation rates, transfer records, job placement success levels, etc. Eaton said that it all added up to "a good deal of additional work."
But she cautioned that the data Congress was seeking was not necessarily the kind of data that helps colleges promote liberal education.
One professor in the audience challenged Eaton's positive portrayal of the role of accreditors. This professor said that regional accreditors -- which accredit institutions' performance and quality over all -- generally help colleges on liberal education. But he said that many colleges are "held hostage" by specialized accrediting agencies (those that accredit individual academic programs, most of them professional). He said that these groups use the accrediting process to block requirements or policies that might promote a liberal education.
Eaton acknowledged the problem. "This is about competition for money and for curricular space," she said. Eaton said that she thought many specialized accreditors were paying more attention to the need to balance their programs' needs against those of institutions, but she said that the tension remained.
Ronald A. Williams, president of Prince George's Community College, told those at the meeting that there was yet another challenge for their efforts: the need to figure out just what a liberal education is. All of the talk about measuring impact suggests more consensus than may exist, he said.
Williams said that there are areas -- critical thinking, literacy of various types -- on which there is agreement. And he said that colleges are quite successful at measuring progress in these areas.
But Williams noted that AACU endorses broader concepts of defining a liberal education, believing -- as he said he does as well -- that a liberal education promotes good citizenship and social responsibility. That's where things become "particularly problematic," he said.
Just as educators have to accept that their student bodies are diverse these days, so they need to accept that the values of their students (not to mention parents, legislators, the public) are diverse. "We can't assume homogeneity of social or ethical values," he said. That means colleges need to engage in more public discussion about what values they are promoting and why, he said.
To those who assume that a good liberal education yields a certain kind of educated person, Williams offered a fact that -- to judge from the looks exchanged around the room -- clearly got the audience thinking about the values they believe are associated with liberal education. The statement from Williams: "The people who lead us into wars are always among the best educated people in society."