The education all students need has been called...

 

liberal education. Many of the characteristics of intentional, twenty-first century learners—empowered through the mastery of intellectual and practical skills, informed by knowledge, and responsible for their own and society’s values—have a familiar ring. They recall the longstanding goals of college learning: developing the mind and intellect by engaging with important knowledge. An education with these goals has traditionally been called liberal education, liberal not in any political sense but in terms of opening and liberating the mind from ignorance.

 

The new educational vision this report advocates rests on the strength of liberal education. However, it brings a new shape to liberal education by assigning to it the capacity to develop mental agility, as well as intellectual power; a deep understanding of the world's variety, as well as a knowledge of Western culture; ethical action in the service of the individual and society, as well as critical judgment. As they participate in a knowledge-based economy and an increasingly interdependent world, all students will need to be nimble thinkers and creative problem solvers.To think outside the box, they will depend on intellectual flexibility, at least as much as on factual information. An ethical grounding and empathy for others will keep them centered in turbulent times.

 

 

Liberal education is an educational philosophy rather than a body of knowledge, specific courses, or type of institution. By drawing on a broad range of knowledge, it asks students to grapple with complicated, important issues, and usually expects them to learn at least one subject in greater depth and at an advanced level. Intellectual growth occurs as both broad and deep learning challenge previously held beliefs. The philosophy of liberal education depends less on particular subject matter than on an approach to teaching and learning. A student can prepare for a profession in a "liberal," mind-expanding manner, or study the humanities or social sciences (traditional "liberal arts" disciplines) narrowly and shallowly. Both small colleges and large universities can educate their students liberally, as can technical institutes; stories throughout this report provide examples.

 

The best undergraduate education for the twenty-first century will be based on a liberal education that produces an individual who is intentional about learning and life, empowered, informed, and responsible. To achieve these goals, liberal education will need to change in two major ways from its earlier incarnations. First, it must define itself as the best and most practical form of learning for a changing world and then strive to meet that standard. Second, it needs to become available to all students, not simply the self-selected (and comparatively privileged) group of the past. Such a liberal education, as the framework for the entire college experience, is not limited to selected disciplines or the introductory level. The aims of liberal education for the future can only be achieved when all parts of the educational experience, from high school through college, focus on them.

 

Reinvigorating liberal education by making it practical

Liberal education for the new century looks beyond the campus to the issues of society and the workplace. It aims to produce global thinkers. Quality liberal education prepares students for active participation in the private and public sectors, in a diverse democracy, and in an even more diverse global community. It has the strongest impact when studies reach beyond the classroom to the larger community, asking students to apply their developing analytical skills and ethical judgment to concrete problems in the world around them, and to connect theory with the insights gained from practice.

 

This approach to liberal education—already visible on many campuses—erases the artificial distinctions between studies deemed liberal (interpreted to mean that they are not related to job training) and those called practical (which are assumed to be). A liberal education is a practical education because it develops just those capacities needed by every thinking adult: analytical skills, effective communication, practical intelligence, ethical judgment, and social responsibility. By expecting students to collaborate productively with people who are unlike them, a liberal education strengthens interpersonal skills useful in the workplace and community life. In fact, for much of its history, liberal education was recognized as practical, since it prepared society's civic and religious leaders for their professions. Many contemporary colleges and universities have maintained this emphasis of service to society (as in some church-affiliated or historically black institutions, or in U.S. military academies). The point, however, is that liberal education must reclaim this pragmatism and become consciously, intentionally pragmatic, while it remains conceptually rigorous; its test will be in the effectiveness of graduates to use knowledge thoughtfully in the wider world. Liberal education anchors the practical in the theoretical, as it develops in students important, sophisticated skills and intellectual capacities.

 

The new practical liberal education, in addition to developing the important capacities of communication and reason, also empowers those who possess it. Graduates with this kind of liberal education will have gained high level abilities, transferable from discipline to discipline and from one environment to another. By knowing the lessons of the past, possessing the ability to hear others in their own languages, and demonstrating an impressive toolbox of skills, graduates will look toward the future prepared for whatever arises. They will be flexible employees, as fields not yet imagined emerge. Their education will meet their own expectations, as well as those of their parents, teachers, employers, and civic leaders.

 

Embracing the practical dimensions of liberal education helps reconcile the divergent expectations of college. Yes, a reinvigorated liberal education expands horizons and develops intellectual skills. Yes, it shares knowledge and nurtures curiosity. But it also creates an educated citizenry and prepares students for good jobs, as well as for satisfying careers. It builds the competent workforce for local economies and a knowledge-based world. None of these outcomes are mutually exclusive. Rather, they reinforce one another to create of liberal education the best answer to the question: What is the learning all students need for the twenty-first century?

 

Reinvigorating liberal education by making it more inclusive

Liberal or liberating education has traditionally been the country's way of preparing its leaders. By developing their capacities to reason and critically evaluate, a liberal education readies them to decide important questions. By fostering a sense of social responsibility, it builds capacities to reach decisions that are wise and just.

 

Reasoned, wise decision-making continues as an important outcome of collegiate study. However, in this new century, shifting roles and greater collaboration will require all people at times to be leaders and at other times to be skilled followers. As leadership mutates into a more nuanced, dynamic concept, the benefits of a liberal education will be valuable—even invaluable—for everyone. Fortunately, the near-universality of college study is making this ideal a real possibility. Even those who have been forced to struggle first for their freedom and then for inclusion, can now look forward to the liberating power of liberal education.

 

The true benefits arise, however, not merely by letting everyone in. In its very essence, liberal education for the twenty-first century is diverse and inclusive in every way. It seeks out varied perspectives, crosses disciplinary lines, pursues wisdom from multiple cultures, and employs a range of teaching strategies. It occurs in all types of institutions, not just elite colleges. It is powerful for all students, those studying traditional arts and sciences disciplines and those in professional programs. Finally, it calls for high standards, but without imposing standardized solutions. The enriched learning environment created by this diversity is essential to preparing all students for the challenges ahead. Education's responsibility to society demands no less.

 

The goal of liberal education remains success in powerful, quality learning, not merely access to a college degree. The nation's colleges and universities already utilize some promising practices to ensure quality learning for all students. But because preparation for liberal education begins long before students reach college, achieving the quality and inclusiveness desired in the New Academy will take concerted and collaborative action across education levels. All those with a stake in higher education will need to accept their individual and joint responsibilities.

 

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