In 2020, the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) released a new blueprint for the future of higher education.
What Liberal Education Looks Like focuses on restoring public confidence in liberal education and inclusive excellence and refuting claims that higher education in general, and liberal education in particular, are irrelevant. It’s also a collective call to action to uphold the considerable potential of colleges and universities.
“This work is urgent,” said Lynn Pasquerella, AAC&U president. “Talk of higher education as a public good and of investing in society through education has been replaced by talk of return on investment – tuition in exchange for jobs. Skeptics deride the arts and humanities as elitist, and we need to be vigilant in rebutting those charges and recognizing them for what they are: Collusion in the growth of an intellectual oligarchy, in which only the richest and most prestigious institutions preserve access to the liberal arts traditions.”
Pasquerella recently shared her passion for “the public purpose of higher education” with Hollins faculty, staff, and the Board of Trustees as the university embarks on creating a new five-year strategic plan. “I’ve been committed to promoting access to excellence in higher education regardless of socioeconomic background, to championing the centrality of liberal education, and to defending political scientist Benjamin Barber’s notion of colleges and universities as civic missions where we not only educate people to be free, but we free them to be educable, thus serving as a visible force in the lives of those who have been most marginalized in our society.”
Those who claim a liberal education and preparation for work, citizenship, and life are mutually exclusive are creating “a false dichotomy,” Pasquerella said. “We need to highlight the fact that in a global knowledge economy, demand for graduates with a liberal education is growing.”
Pasquerella cited the AAC&U’s 2020 research, How College Contributes to Workforce Success: What Matters Most, in which nearly 500 executives and hiring managers were surveyed. The study found that confidence in higher education and the value of a degree remains fairly strong: Sixty-seven percent of employers have a good deal or quite a lot of confidence in higher education (compared to 63% in 2018), and almost nine in 10 (87%) believe that a college degree or credential is definitely or probably worth the time and financial investments.
“Perhaps most importantly, employers regard liberal education as providing the knowledge and skills for long-term career success in the 21st century,” Pasquerella noted. “Nine in 10 employers believe it is important to achieve the learning outcomes that define a contemporary liberal education, and they urge new efforts to help students acquire those. At least half of employers think it’s very important for college students to possess a range of mindsets and aptitudes to be successful, including a solid work ethic, ability to take initiative, self-confidence, persistence, self-awareness, empathy, and curiosity for lifelong learning.”
Pasquerella added that AAC&U’s research showed active and applied educational experiences can have a positive impact on students by improving their engagement and deepening their learning, which in turn can positively impact hiring decisions. These include first-year seminars, learning communities, writing-intensive courses, collaborative projects, undergraduate research, internships, community-based learning, capstone courses, and engagement with educational mentors in and out of the classroom.
At the same time, Pasquerella said, “Student learning assessments must support student success, with guiderails to keep all students on track rather than hurdles that only some students can clear. Inclusive excellence is not a process that isolates students or promotes competition among them. Rather, it’s a collaborative process that takes aim at educational disparities and patterns or systemic disadvantage. Colleges and universities must demonstrate that our success is inextricably linked to the psychological, social, educational, and economic well-being of those we serve.”
Pasquerella asserted that “a 21st century liberal arts education mandates the acceleration of high-impact opportunities that engage students in solving real-world problems within the context of the workforce. It adopts a holistic approach to evidence-based problem solving that incorporates diverse points of view. The curriculum’s emphasis should be on learning outcomes, knowledge of human cultures and the physical and natural world, intellectual and practical skills, personal and social responsibility, and integrative and applied learning as necessary for students’ intellectual, civic, personal, and professional development, and for success in a global economy.”
Asking arts and humanities advocates “to step outside of our echo chambers and use whatever modes of engagement are available to connect the work the academy is doing with people’s lives,” Pasquerella endorsed “leveraging popular culture to promote humanistic understanding. We must recognize more expansive forms of literature and art as the key to survival of the humanities. If we continue to relinquish the opportunities that would extend our reach, public discourse will continue to decline, and academicians will continue to lose the chance to engender a true sense of wonder. In fact, if academics rely exclusively on the mechanisms of arcane study to get out our message, scholarly pursuits as anything more than an ossified repository of ancient curiosity will die.”
Pasquerella concluded with a plea to collectively reaffirm how a liberal education sees the world as a set of interdependent yet inequitable systems, expands knowledge of human interactions, privilege, and stratification, and fosters equity and justice locally and globally. She recalled the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. at the 1963 March on Washington: “We’re now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. This is no time for apathy and complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”
King’s lesson “is more critical than ever,” Pasquerella said. “We need to illuminate the transformative power of the arts and humanities. At the same time, we need to recognize that higher education and its graduates must play a leadership role in fulfilling the promise of liberal education, ensuring that all students are positioned to find their best and most authentic selves.”