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Monday, March 6, 2017

Liberal Education II

The second faculty and staff forum on the future of liberal education requirements at UMNTC was on February 23. My biggest realization while thinking about all that has been said lately about liberal education is that the framing of the discussion as “What do our students need to know?” is not the right starting point. The right starting point “Who do we want our students to be?” I don’t mean who should be admitted, but rather what should our graduates be like? The answer to that question leads us down a path toward our goal rather than simply creating “A Thing To Do.”

So, what should our graduates be like? In keeping with our status as a public institution, the University’s mission says that “We prepare students to meet the great challenges facing our state, our nation, and our world.” However, for liberal education, we need something more focussed. I believe that:

1. The purpose of liberal education is to improve the State of Minnesota, the nation, and the world.
2. The mission of liberal education is to create graduates who are engaged, ethical, knowledgeable, and ready to change the world.

This view of liberal education is truly old school and harks back to antiquity and the education expected of one who was to take an active part in civic life. It does leave us with the task of being elite without being elitist. I believe that in order to achieve the purpose, our graduates must have certain qualities, a few of which are listed here:

  • They are active citizens.
  • They are independent thinkers who strive to answer questions but are equally willing to question answers.
  • They work effectively with other people. This requires communication, working across cultural differences, and leadership/teamwork.
  • They understand how the world works and how other people see the world working. This requires a wide knowledge base and an understanding of peoples and societies.
  • They can synthesize and integrate ideas and concepts from multiple perspectives.
  • They seek to do what is right.
  • They adapt to changing circumstances and see the world both for what it actually is and for what it could be. This requires lifelong learning and a tolerance for change.

This list is incomplete and included primarily for flavor, but what is striking about this list is that is looks much more like the student learning outcomes and student development outcomes adopted by the university than it does the current liberal education framework of the university. Our current liberal education framework really only addresses the “knowledgeable” aspect of my vision of liberal education.

My vision for liberal education is divided into three parts: general education, skills, and qualities. This is, roughly speaking, a fusion of some variations of (current) liberal education, the SLOs, and the SDOs. What the new and improved liberal education system I envision should do is address all of these, not just the general education aspects as is currently the case. This takes a hard job and makes it exponentially more difficult, but I think that it is what makes the most sense if you agree that liberal education is more than a prescribed diet from a cafeteria of courses.

From a historical perspective, liberal education requirements were codified on a university-wide basis in the early 1990s, and tweaked about ten years ago. SLOs were also created about ten years ago, but their accentuation and assessment only came more recently as a result of accreditation pressure. In particular, we assess SLOs, but in CLA (and I suspect many other parts of the U) there is no systematic approach to ensuring that students achieve the SLOs. SDOs simply fly beneath the radar. The three pieces make reasonable sense individually, but there is no coherent whole and no system that ensures students attain all three.

How do we create the coherent whole that will produce these leading citizens of tomorrow? We are good at courses and can cover general education and some of the skills relatively easily. Some folks have suggested Grand Challenges as a unifier for liberal education. GC is integrative, which I like, but as currently practiced it is too focused on the knowledge leg of the stool. What about the other skills and the qualities? I don’t have easy answers for this, or any answers really. I am fairly certain that we also need to look beyond a slate of courses to include activities and experiences, mentoring and coaching. Perhaps experts in student development can guide us.

“I don’t know how” is a downer of a way to end a blog post, but luckily reconsideration of liberal education is a team sport, and someone else here at the U might know how to achieve what I think liberal education needs to be. I am convinced that a reconsideration of liberal education must begin with the goal, and I do think that our goal will lead us to something broader than general education.

I encourage everyone to continue to engage with the process that is reconsidering our liberal education requirements.