Published:

April 4, 2014
 
Tagged: President Emeritus

The Meaning of Liberal Education

Essays and Opinion Pieces


 

By Robert A. Scott, President, Adelphi University


From On the Horizon, in the Carnegie Foundation’s “The Big Picture: Assessing the Future of Higher Education


Introduction

What is liberal education? What is liberal about a liberal education? Does this term suggest a political orientation? Can STEAM education (science, technology, engineering and math), so encouraged by policy leaders, be a part of liberal education, and vice versa?

I believe that undergraduate education is and must be as much about character and citizenship as it is about careers and commerce. In this essay, I will comment on (i) the philosophy of liberal education and its structure; (ii) the goal of general education in fulfilling the goals of liberal education; and (iii) four key elements. These four include the “liberating” aspects of liberal education; the need for an emphasis on questions more than on answers; the meaning of a global perspective; and the connections of each of the above to extra-curricular experiences and engaged citizenship.

The American Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC+U) describes liberal education as “an approach to learning that empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity and change…” “It helps students develop a sense of social responsibility as well as strong and transferable intellectual skills such as communication, analytical and problem-solving skills, and a demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills in a real-world setting.” With a liberal education, “students can prepare for both responsible citizenship and a global economy by achieving the essential learning outcomes.” We will explore these outcomes.

The term liberal education describes a set of outcomes from college learning, no matter what the major course of study, and as AAC+U says, “general education is that part of a liberal education which provides a broad exposure to disciplines shared by all students, no matter what their major.”

Finally, I will discuss the value of liberal education in careers and in life, and the future of liberal education in a job-focused world that gives more value to what can be immediately counted and useful.

In addition to majoring in a subject, and in order to fulfill the purpose of a university education, undergraduate students must learn about and consider the natural world of air, water, and soil we meet upon birth; the world we make, including literature, history, business, architecture, and manufacturing; and the means by which we mediate between the world we meet and the world we make, including philosophy, ethics, religion, psychology, and stories of compassion. This is advanced education, a liberating education, a transformational experience of questions, not training focused on answers. This is the foundation of general education because, as James Baldwin said, we must find the questions hidden by answers.

There are those who argue for the “old-fashioned” liberal arts and sciences, the trivium and quadrivium of the ancients: language and reasoning, but updated to today’s needs. Still others argue that the best preparation is in a licensed field, such as accounting, nursing, teaching, or another field of study that leads to certification and a career. Both routes can be appropriate, but the optimum approach is to combine the two. Many universities do this by requiring even accounting and nursing students to take a substantial number of courses in what is called General Education, a contemporary approach to language and reasoning. Others encourage students in the arts and sciences to participate in internships and supplement classroom and laboratory work with community experiences.

One way to think about the question of what to study is to reflect on contemporary issues and ask what lessons have been learned. A quick survey of the past decade shows that too many people in even sophisticated roles lacked a knowledge of history, and did not have the personal or professional memory in which to place contemporary assumptions and assertions. This was particularly evident in certain fields where even seasoned experts forgot to take risk into account, or to question assumptions about risk.

Therefore, history is an essential subject if we are to know about the past and the foundations of the present, and to understand the different ways people “know” the truth, whether by evidence, by epiphany, by emotion, and how they challenge assumptions and validate assertions.

Imagination is also essential. The exercise of imagination permits us to see patterns, to see where they diverge and when they converge. It requires us to listen, to understand, to tolerate the silence and to comprehend before we respond. It seems clear now that even high profile people confronted new problems without seeing the connections between different variables, without visualizing or forecasting directions, without approaching issues with creativity. They had not developed the capacity to wonder, to imagine, to both look and to see. They could look and not perceive, hear and not know.

The third area to develop is that of compassion, the ability to be empathic. Compassion is the ability to listen, truly hear and comprehend another person’s perspective, and be fair and just, attributes often undermined by our systems of electronic connectivity. Empathy is the ability to put oneself into another’s position.

What is needed?

The skills and abilities needed in the world today are not only knowledge of balance sheets and how to analyze them, but also understanding the dynamics of cultures and how people interact. Too many adults seem to lack self-awareness and any preparation in critical reflection and thinking. The study of literature and history is designed to help us see the questions and assumptions so often hidden by answers, and develop a meaningful philosophy of life.

At a recent meeting of lawyers, physicians, bankers, accountants, and physical therapists, convened to help us at Adelphi do an even better job of preparing students for life after college, I asked about the attributes these alumni most desired in job applicants. I was surprised at how little emphasis was given to subject matter knowledge. This was taken for granted. Instead, they emphasized the ability to speak and write clearly and with persuasion, to listen with care, to be able to analyze questions and problems and propose alternative approaches to find solutions and solve problems, to work successfully in teams, to be adaptable and able to tolerate ambiguity, to be presentable in dress and demeanor, and to be able, as one person said, “to represent me in a meeting with others, including a diverse set of others.” Internships were suggested as ideal sources of preparation.

In fact, I advise students to study that for which they have a passion, and tell their parents that doing so is the best path for academic success. I then say that it is our responsibility as educators to provide opportunities for internships and other “real world” experiences beyond the classroom and lab to help ensure preparation for life after graduation.

Many academic programs tied to particular professions focus on “how to do” things — training — rather than on “how to analyze, comprehend, and communicate about” ideas — the purpose of education. They focus on how to engage in a transaction, whether a stock sale or a real estate acquisition, instead of on a transformation — i.e. finding a synthesis of existing ideas, or imagining new ones, and by elevating one’s thinking beyond the immediate to a more universal, purpose-guided level.

This more universal approach prepares students for a full, well-rounded life as a professional, citizen, and family member, and for work that has meaning and provides fulfillment. Using these thoughts as a guide, students and families should look at academic programs that have a strong grounding in the liberal arts and sciences, and that give the student an opportunity to master a subject matter to a sufficient degree to enter a profession either directly upon graduation, or after graduate school, and gain a network of fellow students and alumni who can become life-long links to careers and social life. They will be composing a life even as they prepare to earn a living.

A Liberal Education

A liberal education fosters the ability to distinguish between what is true and what is false, with a number of different analytical perspectives: the scientific, the artistic, the humanistic, the quantitative, and the qualitative. It helps students to appreciate that which is the best that has been thought and said, to recognize the true, the beautiful and the good, no matter the culture or time. It helps students understand that to measure something indicates it is valued, but that not everything of value can be measured. I call this a liberating education, liberating students from their provincial origins, no matter what their station in life.

This is a program for citizenship, a civic degree. It is liberal in its form of inquiry; it honors no revealed truth but intellectual growth. This curriculum is a preparation for living, for wondering why and reflecting on meaning. It purports not just to teach one how to earn a living, but how to live. It offers instruction and experience in both technique and vision.

Retired Vice Admiral James B. Stockdale, a Medal of Honor winner and the man who organized American prisoner-of-war resistance during his nearly eight years in Hanoi prisons, expressed the major characteristics of what I call a civic degree by stating,

A liberally educated person meets new ideas with curiosity and fascination.
An illiberally educated person meets new ideas with fear.

This style of education has surprisingly diverse attributes. From it, students gain the confidence to take initiative, solve problems, and formulate ideas; they develop skills in language, learning, and leadership. They also learn about domestic and foreign culture, history, mathematics, science and technology. This approach emphasizes reasoning in different modes; clear and graceful expression in written, oral, and visual communication; organizational ability; tolerance and flexibility; creativity; and sensitivity to the concerns of others and to ethical and aesthetic values.

These are its aspirations: to teach the “ordinary” student to be a cultured person; to develop in students the capacity to check assumptions and to understand the value-laden choices that await them as consumers, decision-makers, and arbiters of ethical choices at home, at work, and at the ballot box; to help students understand and build a civilization compatible with the nature and aspirations of human beings and the limitations of the environment. These are ideals which are open to students of any age or station, and to any faculty; they are not the province of a particular department or school. The foundations for this form of study can be set in secondary school, but advanced instruction is necessary.

At most institutions, the Bachelor of Arts curriculum, and to a large extent, the Bachelor of Science curriculum, is organized structurally around a major course of study; cognates, or related courses; general education requirements designed to provide breadth and an introduction to the various departmental majors; and electives, choices drawn from almost any department as a matter of curiosity or interest. General education requirements are often fulfilled by the use of distribution requirements detailing a certain number of courses in certain areas of knowledge, such as arts and humanities, languages, mathematics and science, social science and history.

General Education

There have been many attempts to define the optimal freshman year and four-year General Education program. After years of experience and consideration, I have formulated my ideal approach. It would consist of three clusters of topics to be addressed in the first year of college study and then extended over the four years as part of the General Education curriculum.

The three clusters would include, first, “The World We Meet” upon birth, that is earth, air, and water, the natural world, including biology, chemistry, physics, and all else subsumed by these subjects.

A second cluster would address “The World We Make”, that is, culture and creative endeavors, and all that they include, especially history, literature, sociology, international relations, business, technology, manufacturing, economics, etc., all of which are products of human enterprise. This also would include an introduction to the different forms of scholarly endeavor, including discovery or pure basic research, applied research, integrative approaches combining the results of different fields, and pedagogy, that is, the improvement of teaching and learning.

The third cluster would include the systems of thought by which we mediate between the world we meet and the world we make. These include the methods by which we make moral choices, ethical decisions, general judgments, and compassionate responses, and all that informs them, such as philosophy, religion, and psychology.

By organizing the General Education curriculum around these three clusters, we would require extensive reading, writing, listening, and oral presentations, as well as the use of technology. This would help prepare students for all courses of study they would take in subsequent years, and the methods used, such as group work, thus fulfilling our pledge that while we cannot teach everything, we can prepare students to learn almost anything.

The cluster related to the natural world would include faculty in the sciences prepared for interdisciplinary teaching. Likewise, the cluster of courses related to culture would provide an interdisciplinary approach such as that developed by programs in International or Area Studies. Finally, the cluster related to mediation would call upon faculty in philosophy, ethics, and religious studies, and others who use literary, historical, and philosophical perspectives, depending upon their expertise and interest, to address questions of law, morality, and ethics, and how they differ in mediating values.

In each case, extracurricular clubs, organizations, teams, internships, voluntarism and service learning, on and off campus, provide opportunities to apply learning, learn from additional sources, and advance in knowledge, develop skills and abilities, and refine a set of values, even for students who must work or study part-time.

By organizing the curriculum in this way, we can reduce the effect of departmental and school silos, and encourage cross-disciplinary study, critical thinking and analysis, and a focus on writing. By the way, one of the complaints I hear from faculty is that they are not prepared to teach writing. To that I say, “don’t”. Teach thinking and then assess the ability of students to express their thoughts with clarity, comprehensiveness, persuasiveness, and logic. Doing this, focusing on thinking and the written and oral expression of thinking, will assist students in becoming better writers.

Such a curriculum must be designed; it cannot just happen. It is a means, and its ends, or purposes, must be considered as part of the basic design. As Raymond Loewy might say, simplicity must be foremost; humane values must transcend technological values; and democratic — nay, civic values must overcome the desire for exclusivity.

These are the benefits of an education that liberates students from their provincial origins, from prejudices masquerading as principles, no matter what their nationality, socioeconomic status, age, or religion. They, and we, grow up in mostly isolated, two-generation, mono-cultural communities, and have little experience with those some think of as the “other.” They lack a global perspective.

The goal for such a system is to introduce students to the broad range of the liberal arts and sciences, thus fulfilling the notion of breadth before a student focuses on a concentrated course of study, a major. While the goal may be to introduce students to varied forms of knowledge and varied modes of analysis, too often the introductory courses selected to fulfill general education requirements are the same courses used as the first step for the major, which often is designed as the preparation for graduate study in the field. In this way, a requirement intended to encourage breadth and thinking across disciplines can actually end up being overly focused and pre-professional, the opposite of liberal.

A Liberating Education

For liberal education is intended to encourage free inquiry about life and meaning through a variety of lenses, not expertise in a discipline as a first step. It is intended to prepare an articulate free person who can participate broadly in discussions. It focuses on questions and the pursuit of meaning rather than on professional, vocational, or technical subjects which focus on answers rather than on inquiry. A liberal arts education is designed to help the technical person identify a problem and consider how to approach a possible solution using the tools of the expert.

The liberal arts and sciences, then, indicate not only selected subjects but also an approach that encourages self-reflection and questioning rather than answers and mastery. This approach has been shown to be useful in all majors, including the professions, and is cited as valuable by business leaders and others.

Many colleges and universities structure their general education requirements so that they are fulfilled over a four-year period. They become a “signature” component of the institution’s identity for undergraduate education, although one that can be challenging if the institution enrolls many students as transfers from other colleges.

While the liberal arts are often associated with small colleges (which often are called “liberal arts colleges”, even when more students study marketing than mathematics or leadership than literature), they can be just as important and as vital at large research universities and two-year community colleges.

I think of this kind of undergraduate liberal education as consisting of words that begin with the letter “i”. These words are: inquisitive; interdisciplinary; international; and involvement.

By “inquisitive,” I mean of course questioning, a focus on questions. Remember the wise one, perhaps apocryphal, who asked the child upon returning home from school not, what did you learn today, but what questions did you ask today? We learn by asking as well as by doing.

By “interdisciplinary,” or integration, I mean how does our teaching and learning make connections across various categories of knowledge? While schools and colleges are organized around departments, we do not organize our brains this way. As professionals, when confronted with a puzzle or a problem, we do not metaphorically reach into a history “box” or a sociology “box.” Instead, we draw upon all that we know in an effortless, interdisciplinary, integrated method, often in teams. Since we think and act this way as professionals, we should teach our students in the way they will think and act.

By “international,” I mean thinking and reading beyond our national and natural borders. This is a true multicultural approach, for we and our students live in a world of many cultures not only in the news, but in our neighborhoods.

By “involvement,” I mean to suggest that learning is reinforced by doing. Involvement can be achieved through internships, study teams, voluntarism, or study “abroad” — whether in another country or another culture in our own country. This learning by doing is also called “experiential” learning, learning by experiencing.

Both liberal education and majors can be enhanced by “independent study” with a professor. In this way, students and faculty create their own course and class. Some students are able to develop this approach into a custom-designed major.

I am a strong advocate for liberal education. Unlike others, I believe the “liberal arts” are dead. On virtually all of our campuses, what we call the liberal arts excludes the sciences and is provided by 100-level courses designed as introductions to an academic major which is modeled as a stepping stone for an advanced degree in the discipline. To top it off, at many campuses these courses are taught by part-time instructors.

However, the origins of the liberal arts, the trivium and quadrivium, still have life. They organized the seven courses of study which served as the classical foundation for language and reasoning, the essential ingredients for individual freedom and liberty in any democracy at any time.

Therefore, I would return to these principles and formulate a “liberating” education based on mastery of language and reasoning. This education would help “liberate” students from their provincial origins and their limited view of humanity, including their own, without regard to age, station, or place. This liberation would be based on knowledge, skills, abilities, and values. Our focus on the international and intercultural, the interdisciplinary and the experiential, would support this goal.

A Global Perspective

Unfortunately, we have educators who believe that international and multicultural education are different arenas, for different populations. They believe that one is broadening and the other is parochial. They believe that these themes can be left to ad hoc individual faculty interests.

Yet nothing could be further from the truth. These two themes are siblings in the same family, a part of the truth whose pursuit we espouse in our mission statements. They should be offered as partners, by design, as part of an institution’s priorities. The imperatives for international understanding, peace, economic competitiveness, and mutual environmental concerns, among others, assume a domestic stability based on respect for diversity within our borders as well as beyond them.

Many people, even educators, seem to think that “international” refers to “over there,” while “multicultural” refers to populations in our cities, both marginalized in the process. But the United States is part of the world — it is “over there” to our colleagues across both oceans — and we have a great diversity of ethnic, racial, and national groups in our midst. Indeed, this is our nation’s heritage.

One explanation for the lack of interchange between international and multicultural education may be related to their different inspirations and stages of development. International education, by and large, was the initiative of faculty, institutional leaders, national associations, federal programs, major foundations, and foreign governments. This relatively long-term base of support has been an important platform for recent efforts to make international education even more pervasive across the curriculum and extracurriculum.

In contrast, multicultural education is a more recent initiative which, by and large, has evolved from Black Studies programs created in the 1960’s after large numbers of black and other minority students were recruited to higher education. These and related programs of ethnic and women’s studies were added to institutions at the initiative — some would say insistence — of students, and did not have the benefit of a previous institutional base or a welcoming institutional attitude. Nor did they enjoy the extra-institutional bases of support available to international education.

However, as ethnic and women’s studies have developed, it is clear that the imperatives for their inclusion are as valid as for international education. After all, it is just as important for students to understand and be able to articulate the cultural diversity of American society as it is for them to appreciate and articulate the depths of diversity in other parts of the world. It is for these reasons that I refer to “global” or “intercultural” education, rather than strictly to international education or multicultural education. I believe that our goal is to enhance the abilities of all our students to learn and pursue truth on their own, and in groups, in an increasingly interdependent and intercultural world. To do this requires knowledge, skills, abilities, and values, including the ability to understand the “other” and to communicate with an “other.”

The need for such understanding seems self-evident. It is highly likely that our graduates – all of them – either will supervise or be supervised by someone of a different ethnic, national, or racial background. It is likely that the activities of their employers will be affected by suppliers, customers, or others who are of a different cultural background. In addition, it is likely that the neighbors of our graduates, or the schoolmates of their children, will be of a different heritage. That is, we expect that the lives of our graduates will be affected by our increasingly diverse society and interdependent world community. A simple review of economics and demographics makes this clear.

The objectives for global education were well expressed by the Atlantic Council in 1989:

  • To provide students with a sense of time and place
  • To challenge students to appreciate the complexity of issues and interests that bear on relations among nations, regions, and power groups
  • To prepare students to take account of the new and changing phenomena that affect international relations
  • To encourage critical thinking and inquiry about contending concepts and theories of international relations
  • To “de-parochialize” students’ perspectives on international affairs
  • To heighten understanding that international relations are not static, but subject to constant change 1

That is, our students should know and value other cultures, and be competent in communicating with other people.

It is important for people as citizens to be aware of international and intercultural differences and similarities because so many communities are home to new immigrants from other countries. Citizens cannot be fully responsible unless they are more knowledgeable about and sensitive to the differences in culture which are becoming so prominent in our communities and school populations in the realms of food, family life, public health, business practices, etc.

It is also essential that citizens be knowledgeable about philosophies undergirding the dominant religions and economic systems in the world. What is the diversity of thought within Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and other religions? What are the differences and contradictions between and among democracy, capitalism, socialism, and communism? These are essential elements to citizenship.

Most students will work with individual entrepreneurs, small business owners, and corporate executives either before or after they go to graduate school, if that is their goal. They will need access to timely and accurate information and high quality training for setting up business in other countries, selling to foreign markets, importing goods and materials, gaining access to foreign capital, and entering into joint ventures, both here and abroad, with international firms.

The imperatives for global education include issues of national security; peaceful, respectful relations between and among people and nations; economic competition and cooperation; environmental interdependence; diversity in our midst; foreign-owned employers; international trade and currency efforts; and graduates who will supervise or be supervised by people of different ethnic, national, or racial backgrounds. All neighborhoods are affected by international influences, including population, products, petroleum, prices, and peace.

Therefore, faculty need to know how to incorporate a crosscultural, international perspective in the curricula of virtually all subjects. This includes the humanities, sciences, social sciences, arts, business, other professions, etc. This is more than language competency, but also includes cultural awareness, social knowledge, geography, economics, and history.

Knowledge, skills, abilities, and values

The mission of every college or university should be to advance students’ knowledge, skills, abilities, and values for this new world. By “knowledge,” we refer to the content of general and specialized education, including knowledge to the point of competency of both one’s own culture and a culture other than one’s own, whether gained by formal instruction or by experience which is then assessed. In this way, students can learn about the commonalities between and among groups as well as the differences, just as the ancients did.

By “skills,” we refer to language, i.e. writing, listening, speech, and reading, as well as foreign languages, computation, collaboration, and the use of computers and other technological tools. By “abilities,” we refer to reasoning; formulating hypotheses; critical analysis; seeing connections between disparate events, ideas, and truths, which is the essence of interdisciplinarity; relating to others; imagining oneself as the “other” or imagining a problem in a totally new position; formulating alterative views; leadership; learning on one’s own and in groups; and developing natural talents. These skills and abilities are enhanced by our approach to education.

By “values,” we refer to inquisitiveness, a commitment to learning, teamwork, ethics, discipline, a philosophy of service to others, involvement as a citizen, a balance between material and non-material goals, caring for others, empathy, tolerance, and respect for diversity. This preparation, together with advanced knowledge, skills, and ability, is necessary for citizenship and lifelong learning in an increasingly interdependent and intercultural world.

While this curriculum must embrace all of the social sciences and humanities, as well as of the sciences and quantitative reasoning, I emphasize “culture” in this discussion because it is such an inclusive term. To ignore values and beliefs, customs and institutions, both over time and from place to place, and only to dwell on the unfortunate and painful aspects of the past of a people, is to make it seem as if human nature is the same everywhere, that only the form of “colonial rule” is different.2 This is short-sighted. We must move beyond “correcting” history to comprehending and interpreting it. As Robin Lovin put it, “We cannot educate free people by disowning the past, but neither should we let the past own us.”3

According to the anthropologist Clifford Geertz, “the image of a constant human nature independent of time, place and circumstance, of studies and professions, transient fashions and temporary opinions, may be an illusion, that what (humans) are may be so entangled with where ( they are), who (they are), and what (they believe) that (their nature) is inseparable from them. It is precisely the consideration of such a possibility that led to the rise of the concept of culture and the decline of the (Enlightenment’s) view of (human nature) … (humanity) unmodified by the customs of particular places do not in fact exist, (and have) never existed,” says Geertz.4 “This makes the drawing of a line between what is natural, universal, and constant … and what is conventional, local, and variable extraordinarily difficulty” to discern.5 The conclusion is that humanity is as various in its “essence” as it is in its “expression.” And that goes for “us” as well as for “them.”

What seems clear as well is that while essence and expression vary widely across cultures, there are many commonalities as well — identification with a group, grounding in a place, acculturation of values and beliefs, and the need for respect, safety, and hope.

Unfortunately, the courses and activities called international education and multicultural education at many colleges seem to deny these conclusions. Instead of aiming to understand the essence as well as the expression of another people, commonalities as well as differences, even of those in our own communities, educators tend to deal in broad generalities and negative comparisons.

As I have said, I believe the goal of intercultural education should be for students to attain proficiency, mastery, or competence, however defined, in a culture other than their own. That is, through learning, experiencing, and communicating, students should attain and enhance the knowledge, skills, abilities, and attitudes necessary to discern and articulate the essence of another culture, in terms of economics, politics, literature, history, etc., as well as to recognize and explain its expression, and in deep ways to compare both to their own. To do so, they must attain at least the same level of understanding of their own culture, in order to be able to discern its essence as well as its expression, its commonalities and differences when compared to others.

But what do many colleges do? They provide a superficial survey of Western history and lump all of Women’s History to special programs in March and African-American heritage into a “Black Studies” course for the 28 days in February. They do the same with Latino heritage and Asian heritage, when they do anything at all. In so doing, they deny students the opportunity to know the rich diversity of cultures within the African, Latin, and Asian experiences. These educators meld dozens of different “essences’ into three forms of “expression.”

There are other serious educational consequences that result from these approaches. After all, our understanding of what we mean by international and multicultural education affects our thinking about the campus mission and about policies related to the curriculum, degree requirements, student and faculty recruitment and retention, affirmative action, and student, faculty, and staff orientation upon arrival at and departure from the college.

International or Multicultural?

It is for these reasons I say that colleges and universities which espouse international and multicultural education often ignore complex issues, including the fact that African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Latinos are not monolithic groups, as college programming often suggests; that relations between and among these groups, and between and among them and international students and faculty, are often complicated by prejudices brought to this country; that there are important lessons to be learned by studying ethnic or intergroup relations in other countries; and that the study of history in every case must include the trials and achievements of women.

Too many students think of Africa as a single nation instead of as a home of nations. Few students know of the African diaspora and the existence of African heritage in scores of countries. With so little understanding, how can they make sense of the term “African-American?”

The same can be said for Asian and Latino heritage and also for European history. Our students know so little, and often we are to blame. In our courses and in our celebrations, we must peel back the layers of meaning to reveal the richness of diversity.

We also are often to blame for our students’ ignorance because we organize our curricula and activities as if the international is bilateral: the U.S. and the Far East; the U.S. and Africa; the U.S. and Latin America, etc. We seem to forget — except in a few classes — that other nations have relations between and among themselves independent of the U.S.; that the geographic orientation of countries is not the same around the world (to wit, the Far East is not the far east from everyone’s perspective), and that inter-group relations forged elsewhere, especially when based on limited awareness and antagonism over scarce resources, may cause difficulties even in a third country.

The lessons to be learned by studying inter-group relations in other countries seem to be lost on our institutions. Clearly the relations between and among ethnic, national, and racial groups in our country can be illuminated by studying intergroup relations in Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America as well as in North America. But why is one the subject of international education, while the other is considered multicultural education? The international and the multicultural are threads in the same cloth. After all, what is multicultural to us is international to others. That is why we must understand ourselves to understand others.

In summary, I wish to emphasize three points drawn from these thoughts. First, as educators, we must ensure that our students understand the depths of diversity. They must know about commonalities as well as differences, values as well as practices.

Now, I understand that there are limits to what we can teach and what we can require. That is why I emphasize that our mission is to enhance the abilities of students to be reflective, to engage in critical thinking, to learn on their own and in groups. We can promise to prepare students to learn anything, but we cannot promise to teach them everything. Our goal should be for students to understand the “other,” any “other,” not attempt to offer courses in the extensive array of cultures represented throughout our world. Each college should decide on the limited number of particular cultures it will emphasize, given its heritage, location, and the demographics of its students, and use off-campus experiences to supplement the curriculum.

Second, we educators must ensure that our students understand and appreciate that they are the “other” to many in this world. They must know that we need to know ourselves — the history, literature, and heroes of the rich diversity of peoples who built our civilization, our institutions and our values — if we are to understand our commonalities and differences when compared to others. Without this knowledge of others and ourselves, we are left with ignorance: fertile ground for suspicion, fear, and prejudice.

Third, we educators must ensure that our students develop a level of competence in a culture other than their own. Only by knowing our own culture, by having an appreciation for “us”, and by having some degree of mastery of another culture, can one begin to put himself or herself in the boots or shoes or sandals of another. A superficial survey course cannot accomplish this. Not even proficiency in a foreign language studied in the best labs with the best teachers can assure this. And not all students can afford to study for a year in another country, or take the “Grand Tour” upon graduation.

Technology as Teacher

But all colleges can use three strategies to help students gain this knowledge. The first is through the curriculum, courses as well as requirements. The second is through experiences, periods of study and work in another cultural setting. Finally, telecommunications, especially videoconferencing, can be an inexpensive way to make it possible for students of all backgrounds to discuss similarities and differences with students, village officials, and educators in other settings.

Taken together, courses, lectures, field experiences, joint projects, and electronic meetings can help us and our students see that international and multicultural education are part of the same fabric, complementary measures to prepare graduates for an increasingly interconnected and intercultural world – here and there.

This is a good example of how technology can supplement what we can do in a classroom. As Robert Johnson, the president of Bowdoin College, said, “It is time to stop talking about replacing the traditional college experience with online learning, and to start talking about making that experience available to every enterprising individual. That means more than making it affordable, it means making higher education relevant, connected, and engaged with the changes that are sweeping our society … the revolution we need is the one that connects the best and brightest students from every level of our society to the immersive, nurturing environment of college campuses.”6

This is an acknowledgement that the transformative, liberating experience so highly valued in undergraduate education requires a faculty member and a student engaged in learning. I call such an approach the “curriculum as a covenant”, general education as a commitment for a new age.

This commitment must include an introduction to the uses of technology, including online learning. This tool has utility in the classroom as a new source of supplementary expertise, just as now garnered from visitors, videos and visits to labs, concerts, museums, studios and factory sites. We can gain a “sage on the stage” through technology, but we do not give up our role as the essential “guide on the side” who is available for instruction and advising.

In addition, institutions of higher education must be ready to receive requests from current and prospective students for advanced placement and credit toward general education and major requirements for online courses taken elsewhere. They also should be prepared to offer advanced education and training to graduates no matter where they are located, taking advantage of alumni affinity and the technology platform that exists and is already used on campus.

This is another reason why we should be preparing students for the world they will enter upon graduation. We want them to study that for which they have a passion, as a “free” person, because this is most likely to lead to academic success; but then we must fulfill the obligation to support internships, service learning, and other engagements beyond the campus so that students are prepared for their next steps, whether employment or graduate school. These internships, if sufficiently long and demanding, foster learning by doing, learning from doing, and learning and doing in teams; and they can encourage a lifetime of involvement with the larger society.

After all, while our mission is certainly to prepare students for careers and commerce, it is also true that our vision is for the development of good character and the encouragement of engaged citizenship.

Conclusion

Finally, as a last effort to encourage readers to contemplate the essence of a liberal education, I offer a quote from a moving personal story by a profound professor of English, now deceased.

He said,

All there is to thinking is seeing something noticeable which
makes you see something you weren’t noticing which makes
you see something that isn’t even visible.7

To me, this quote captures the meaning of liberal education.


Footnotes

1 Post World War II international Relations as a component of general education in American Colleges and Universities. The Atlantic Council of the United States, Washington, D.C., 1989, p.7

2 Geertz, Clifford. “The Impact of the Concept of Culture on the Concept of Man,” in The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books, p. 35.

3 Lovin, Robin M. “Must We Disown Our Past to Become A Multicultural Society?” Liberal Education, March/April, 1992, Vol. 78, No. 2, p. 8.

4 Geertz, p. 35.

5 Ibid. p. 36.

6 Johnson, Robert E. “Higher Education: The Revolution That Really Matters.” Huff Post, College, January 12, 2013.

7 Maclean, Norman. A River Runs Through It. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1976, p. 144.


This article is © Emerald Group Publishing and permission has been granted for this version to appear here. Emerald does not grant permission for this article to be further copied/distributed or hosted elsewhere without the express permission from Emerald Group Publishing Limited.
 
Tagged: President Emeritus