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Liberal Education

25 May Posted by in Academics | 2 comments
Liberal Education

Know what I haven’t heard much about this year? liberal educational values, that’s what. I don’t mean they’ve been abandoned, even by academic leaders whose main focus seems elsewhere. But they sure have dropped out of most of the headlines. And this could be a problem. I am entirely in favor of reevaluating our delivery of liberal educational standards, but in our passion for innovation I do believe we have to be careful not to downgrade the tradition itself.

I had an opportunity to offer some remarks at our Phi Beta Kappa initiation, along the following general lines. Phi Beta Kappa, for all its faults, stands for high academic achievement and liberal educational standards, which is one reason I’m so delighted Mason now participates.

I mean, by liberal education, at least three things: first, freedom of inquiry, with no topic or approach out of bounds. Second, commitment to critical thinking, by which assumptions are routinely tested (not necessarily to be rejected, but not merely taken on authority) and through which skepticism precedes acceptance. And third, breadth of inquiry, a commitment to exploration of numerous subjects and approaches.

Liberal education is always under some threat. We routinely field complaints from the public about this or that speaker, indicating a surprisingly broad lack of commitment to freedom of inquiry. We’ve long faced, and still face, the challenge of overspecialization, which has all sorts of drawbacks when carried too far.

The current challenge that worries me most is the tendency to judge higher education by the narrowest utilitarian criteria.  It’s perfectly fine, for example, to explore competency tests and badges – but not, in my opinion, if the result is degree programs in which the liberal educational elements have been bled dry. It’s fine to value experiential education and preparation for first jobs, but along with other goals and experiences including, hopefully, some opportunity to take a course or two simply because they are interesting. It’s fine to talk, as our strategic plan does, of research of consequence, but only if “consequence” includes contributions to understanding and aesthetic experience, not just narrow problem solving. We are, after all, trying to educate not just for first jobs but for careers, with their unpredictable twists, and for a more fulfilling life.

It’s pretty obvious that, in the present climate, most defense of liberal educational components has to come from higher ed itself. State authorities seems bent increasingly on evaluating programs in terms of job projections. Focus on cost cutting – which is legitimate to a point – has too often eclipsed the richer mix of criteria by which education should be measured.

Within the higher ed community, let’s not forget this aspect of our responsibility. This doesn’t mean that we ignore other goals, or fail to innovate. But it does mean retaining some commitments that are not brand new. Ultimately, after all, an education that encourages creative thinking and breadth is what will prove most useful, to individuals, leaders, and society at large. Narrow utilitarianism is not actually very useful.