ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

Losing the Idea of Liberal Education

September 21, 2005 by ACTA

It has become commonplace to lament the decline of liberal education in the United States. We criticize colleges for abandoning their mission, for becoming excessively corporate, on the one hand, and for pandering to students with inflated grades, country club-like amenities, and dumbed down, unfocussed curricula, on the other. We also criticize students for approaching their college years with a strong careerist instinct and little else--increasingly, college students seem more interested in gaming the system than in getting an education, more concerned with engineering a transcript and a resume that will open doors for them, than with broadening their intellectual horizons and discovering what it means to be a thinking adult citizen of the world.

The Association of American Colleges and Universities has been fighting this trend for a decade now, devoting a great deal of time and energy to a campaign it calls "Liberal Education and America's Promise: Excellence for Everyone as a Nation Goes to College." As part of that campaign, the AACU studied the attitudes of high school and college students toward higher education.

The disturbing but ultimately unsurprising results are summarized in The Chronicle of Higher Education. They are worth quoting at length:

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."

As speculation mounts regarding what Margaret Spellings' commission will actually do, the AACU study stands as an important document about the present state of higher education in this country. Spellings justified her decision to form the commission in part by citing concern about America's ability to compete with other countries. The AACU report suggests that one reason American students are less rounded and less prepared for life after college is, ironically, that all they really do in college is try to prime themselves for life in the global economy. The intellectual impoverishment of that approach to undergraduate education, which increasingly sees college as a time for resume building, networking, and personal advancement, is taking its toll on a generation of young people who emerge from their undergraduate years well versed in gamesmanship but not particularly knowledgeable about anything else.

Will the Spellings commission focus exclusively on bottom lines--costs, rising enrollment numbers, the need to prepare a globally savvy workforce--or will it take a broader, longer, less quantifiable view of what American higher education needs? Whatever the commission does, it will be telling, indicative of the national mood and, possibly, of a national willingness to abandon the core principles of a style of learning, and a kind of education, that is clearly disappearing from this country.

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