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Liberal Education and America’s Promise
Excellence for Everyone as a Nation Goes to College

By Daniel F. Sullivan

Recently, Ann and I viewed an hour-long PBS program on dyslexia, and one of the points that was made has a clear parallel in liberal education.  Bruce Jenner, Olympic decathlon gold medalist and a dyslexic, narrated the program and at one point said something like “Until universal literacy became a requirement for even minimal participation in American society, dyslexia—a learning disability of neurological origin which causes difficulty with reading and writing—remained undiscovered.”  When it became critical for everyone to be able to read, the incentive grew to understand why a substantial group—some say as many as 10% of the population—of otherwise intelligent persons had enormous difficulties in learning to read. 

In many respects an analogous situation applies to our need for liberal education in the world of today.  Industrial societies need vast numbers of factory workers to do routine, repetitive tasks that do not involve such things as analysis, synthesis, teamwork and problem-solving, high-level written and communication skills, critical and creative thinking, intercultural knowledge and competence, quantitative literacy and information literacy.  Managers, leaders and professionals need such skills in industrial society, but they are a relatively small fraction of the workforce.  As manufacturing in a society like ours more frequently involves “continuous process” technology, where labor costs are a smaller fraction of overall production costs, and less frequently involves “mass production” technology, factory workers also increasingly need the advanced skills I note above while manufacturing that is still best done in a “mass production” way moves to less developed societies.  In manufacturing involving continuous process technology, the fraction of employment that is managerial and technical grows while the fraction devoted directly to production declines.

As the manufacturing sector of an advanced economy becomes smaller in terms of numbers of workers employed and the services sector grows, those high-level skills are in even higher demand.  This is so even in traditional blue-collar service jobs; the complexity of today’s plumbing and electrical systems requires plumbers and electricians who can analyze, synthesize, problem-solve and communicate, among other skills.

In short, just as dyslexia was discovered when universal literacy became a basic societal necessity, liberal education is being “discovered” in new ways as the skills, habits of mind and personal attributes we associate with a liberally educated person become more and more necessary for almost any kind of work and life in a modern society like ours—indeed, an almost universal necessity. 

The Universal Necessity of Liberal Education

That is the basic premise of “Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP),” an exciting decade-long initiative of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) begun in 2005, its 90th anniversary year.  For several years I have been on the board of AAC&U, and this year I am chair-elect (to become chair in January 2008).  AAC&U, with over 1,100 colleges and universities of every type and size in its membership, is “the only major higher education association whose sole focus is the quality of student learning in the college years,”1 and the only association devoted to fostering liberal education.  LEAP’s core principle is that not only should liberal education be the central focus of post-secondary education of all types, but that it should also be the primary focus of K-12 education—our “education for all”—as well.  Indeed, today’s “vocational” education must also be liberal education, for success in what we have historically called “blue-collar work” is also dependent on acquiring the skills, habits of mind and forms of personal commitment of the liberally educated person.

I believe we have evidence that the American public increasingly gets this.  At our January AAC&U meeting we released the results of a major survey of American business leaders—mostly chief executive officers of companies of a variety of sizes—and recent college graduates.2   Let me quote from the report to summarize the findings:

“Employers and recent college graduates reject a higher education approach that focuses narrowly on providing knowledge and skills in a specific field; majorities instead believe that an undergraduate college education should provide a balance of a well-rounded education and knowledge and skills in a specific field.”3

“They particularly emphasize the importance of providing students with . . . . experience putting [their] knowledge and skills to practical use in ‘real-world’ settings.”4
“Majorities of employers think that
colleges and universities should place more emphasis on:5

u  Integrative learning: the ability to apply knowledge and skills to real-world settings through internships or other hands-on experiences.  (73%)

u  Knowledge of human cultures and the physical and natural world: concepts and new developments in science and technology (82%); global issues and developments and their implications for the future (72%); the role of the United States in the world (60%); cultural values and traditions in America and other countries (53%)

u  Intellectual and practical skills: teamwork skills and the ability to collaborate with others in diverse group settings (76%); the ability to communicate effectively orally and in writing (73%); critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills (73%); the ability to locate, organize and evaluate information from multiple sources (70%); the ability to be innovative and think creatively (70%); the ability to solve complex problems (64%); quantitative reasoning (60%)

u  Personal and social responsibility: global issues and developments and their implications for the future (72%); a sense of integrity and ethics (56%)”

The survey also indicates that there is a growing national recognition of the importance of science and mathematics education, both as a key element of liberal education and because of the critical and growing contribution science and mathematics education plays and will play in making possible the technological and other innovations necessary to produce a growing world economy that is environmentally sustainable. Of course, St. Lawrence and the rest of the nation’s selective liberal arts colleges got this long ago.  Selective liberal arts colleges, for over a half-century, have produced 2.5 to three times as many baccalaureate degrees in science and mathematics as research universities and other kinds of undergraduate institutions on a proportional basis:  typically from 25%
to 40% of their graduates.  The only problem is that the total enrollments of the top 60 American liberal arts colleges can fit comfortably in the University of Michigan’s football stadium!  We are way out ahead, we are too few to change the big picture by ourselves, and we have to help the rest of the nation catch up

St. Lawrence: Exemplar of Best Practices

St. Lawrence faculty and University leaders have been deeply involved in AAC&U for at least two decades, and more than any other institution I know St. Lawrence exemplifies the best practices that lead most directly to critical liberal education outcomes in students and a culture of innovation and constant self-improvement. 

We begin at St. Lawrence with inspiring aspirations for the liberal education of our students.  This is some of what we say in our Statement of Aims and Objectives:

A liberal education requires breadth, depth and integration in learning. It also requires the cultivation of those habits of intellectual and moral self-discipline that distinguish a mature individual.  To these ends, St. Lawrence seeks to provide an education that fosters in students an open, inquiring and disciplined mind, well informed through broad exposure to basic areas of knowledge; an enthusiasm for life-long learning; self-confidence and self-knowledge; a respect for differing opinions and for free discussion of those opinions; and an ability to use information logically and to evaluate alternative points of view.

A liberal education frees students from the confines of limited personal experiences and limited knowledge of the physical, historical, social and cultural world.  In return, this liberation gives an enlightened understanding of that which is singular, immediate and limited. Thus, a liberal education is always relevant to the world in which students must live at the same time that it attempts to maintain a certain detachment from that world.6 

Faculty at St. Lawrence pursue those aims and objectives within a culture of innovation and self-improvement.  The First-Year Program (FYP) is, according to the University Catalog, “a combined academic and residential program that emphasizes critical thinking and active student participation in both the classroom and the residence,” now celebrating its 20th year—a remarkable innovation, then and now.  The FYP is interdisciplinary and team-taught, and each FYP college’s academic focus is an enduring theme of the human experience; there is a strong “emphasis on communication skills, in particular, writing, speaking and research”; and the FYP encourages “student participation, collaborative intellectual experiences, self-expression and critical thinking.”  All of these goals are central to almost any definition of liberal education.

The Winter magazine gave several other examples of St. Lawrence “carrying academic innovation to new heights” in its review of a series of academic strategic planning papers, or “white papers,” that describe innovations under consideration and in some cases beginning implementation, from “Cultivating Intentionality in Academic Planning,” to “New Literacies for the Twenty-First Century,” to “Understanding the Global in Global Study,” to “The Intersection of Serving and Learning:  Civic Engagement and the Liberal Arts.”

Let me repeat my response to this quote from the federal Commission on the Future of Higher Education—the so-called Spellings Commission: “American higher education has become what, in the business world, would be called a mature enterprise: increasingly risk-averse, at times self-satisfied, and unduly expensive. . . .  We recommend that America's colleges and universities embrace a culture of continuous innovation and quality improvement by developing new pedagogies, curricula, and technologies to improve learning, particularly in the area of science and mathematical literacy.”7  My response was: “They sure haven’t visited St. Lawrence!”

Not too many years ago some commentators on higher education suggested that perhaps the nation’s selective liberal arts colleges were dinosaurs heading toward extinction.  That is certainly not evident in the steady and in some years dramatic increase in application demand at American liberal arts colleges.  And it is certainly not evident if one takes to heart the observations and analyses presented here.  Liberal education is the education Americans need for the 21st century.  It is not just relevant; it is the core, the centerpiece of what is needed.  We at St. Lawrence feel our responsibility in this regard acutely. 

1AAC&U, “College Learning for the New Global Century,” Foreword, 2007.
2 Peter D. Hart Research Associates, Inc., “How Should Colleges Prepare Students to Succeed in Today’s Global Economy?”  Conducted on behalf of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, December 28, 2006.
3Ibid, 3.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid.
6  St. Lawrence University Catalog, 2006-07, 5.
7 U. S. Department of Education, A Test of Leadership:  Charting the Future of U. S. Higher Education, Washington, D.C., 2006, ix.

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