Liberal Education Goes on the Offense

A few weeks ago, I spent four days at the annual conference of the American Association of Colleges and Universities.  Several hundred small to mid-size colleges and universities are represented  by about a 1000 presidents,provosts, deans and other academic administrators gathered to discuss the state and future of higher  education.  This  was the 100th annual meeting of the association! The  conference theme was presented as “Liberal Education, Global Flourishing, and the Equity Imperative.”  Sorting through the abstract headlines, session after session grappled with a drumbeat of  concern over the near and long term future of post secondary education.

Over the past several years, the annual confab spent most of its program in arguments defending the values of a liberal education in the face of an increasingly utilitarian attitude toward the purpose of higher education. This year,there seemed to be less defense and more offense–more simple assumption that what young men and women gain through liberal education beyond high school is essential to the future of all human endeavor. Without the graduates of liberal education in all of its forms and no matter how accessed, the future of humanity is in deep trouble. So, let’s just stop all the talk of gloom and doom and get on with engaging our young adults in rich and broad arts and humanities curriculum, for it is this type of learning experience only that will set them on a course to a life well lived.

Several of the presenters pooh poohed the media harangue that higher education has to change or it will soon see its “business” and “purpose” decay to irrelevancy. The point is, the conference embraced, that our society–any evolving society–cannot do without a higher and continuing education resource. The role played by colleges and universities to transition young men and women to adulthood, to provide knowledge and skills to future leaders and professionals, to preserve and curate what we have collectively learned and to generate new knowledge through research and creativity are fundamental to societal health.