Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Intended Outcomes for a Liberal Undergraduate Education

On the importance of institutional mission, James Lyons emphasizes the need to “know our tasks, which flow from many sources” (1997, p.136). In addition to knowing our tasks in the context of higher education administration, it is beneficial to borrow a bit of straightforward advice from Stephen Covey’s popular The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, in which he reminds us to “begin with the end in mind” (1989). The ends that I will keep in mind throughout this idyllic prescription are the intended outcomes for a liberal undergraduate education.

Intended is a powerful modifier for the type of outcomes that college students should expect to gain by attending a four-year liberal arts college. I could have substituted the synonyms planned, envisioned, even wished-for to articulate how lofty these goals might seem to the 2 million unemployed Americans over 25 with at least a bachelor’s degree (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2011). Herein lies a major discrepancy between the expectations of modern society and the espoused purposes of higher education at large. In a 1987 publication by the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (as cited in Lyons, 1997), the traditional purposes of higher education are summarized as “to preserve, transmit and create knowledge, to encourage personal development and to serve society.” There is no mention of guaranteed jobs, fruitful employment, or satisfying careers to follow. However, because institutions of higher education operate within a society that demands opportunities for vocational advancement, such institutions should choose to accommodate this purpose by accepting it into their institutional missions. To turn their backs on this growing need would be a disservice to the communities in which the colleges and universities reside.

There is obviously more to college education than providing a competitive edge in the job search. As the feature in an article on contemporary unemployment, an underemployed graduate with two degrees in American Studies admits, “if I hadn’t received the kind of education I did, I would be less of an active citizen and less engaged in the world in ways I would not have discovered on my own” (Fairbanks, 2010). This anecdote highlights the previously mentioned purpose to serve society, and also alludes to an underlying self-discovery that should be a fundamental goal of higher education. Self-discovery and personal growth should remain crucial components of the college experience, and provide uniqueness to the institutional purpose that accounts for all manner of individual interests.

Before reaching my summary of the espoused purposes of higher education in a liberal college setting, it would be careless to neglect several documents that attempted to derive just such a list through years of collaboration and research. The Association of American Colleges & Universities (AACU), in a publication on College Learning for the New Global Century, describes the essential outcomes students should reach through college education: Knowledge, intellectual and practical skills, personal and social responsibility, and integrative learning (2007). In their publication of “Greater Expectations,” the AACU prescribes an “invigorated and practical liberal education” to impart the mastery of intellectual and practical skills, knowledge of the natural and social world, knowledge about forms of inquiry, and responsibility for personal actions and civic values (2002). Outcomes for liberal education vary only slightly from the purpose and intended outcomes of higher education as a whole, and reiterate themes of knowledge, intellectual and practical skills, and individual and social responsibility (AACU, 2005). In an address at the Annual Conference of the American Association for Higher Education, James Hunt Jr. proposed that the purpose of higher education in America is to promote citizenship, prepare people to be good human beings, and to educate people with world-competitive skills (1998). As Chair of The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, Hunt’s proposed purposes of higher education differ from the AACU’s consistent requisites, and focus on skills more than the transmission of knowledge. However, similarities between these lists of intended outcomes (Table 1) constitute what the AACU describes as a “remarkable consensus,” and provide a functional template for what the purpose of a liberal college education should include (AACU, 2005).

Table 1
The purpose and intended outcomes of higher education

Intellectual and Practical Skills
Personal Development
Social Responsibility

College Learning for the New Global Century (AACU, 2007)

Knowledge of human cultures and the physical and natural world

Intellectual and practical skills, integrative learning

Personal responsibility

Social responsibility
Liberal Education Outcomes (AACU, 2005)
Knowledge of human cultures and the natural world

Intellectual and practical skills
Individual responsibility
Social responsibility
Greater Expectations (AACU, 2002)
Knowledge of the natural and social world and about forms of inquiry basic to these studies

Mastery of intellectual and practical skills
Responsibility for personal actions
Responsibility for civic values
Organizing for Learning (Hunt, 1998)

Educating people with world-competitive skills
Preparing people to be good human beings
Promote citizenship
NASPA, 1987
Preserve, transmit and create knowledge

Encourage personal development
Serve society

Borrowing heavily from the consensus of intended outcomes prescribed over the past several decades (Table 1), and in light of the social demands that higher education serve as an avenue for vocational advancement, I believe the role of postsecondary education at a liberal arts college should include: A breadth of knowledge in arts and sciences, intellectual and practical skills that serve the individual and others, and the development of personally and socially responsible citizens. These broad themes include a variety of specific outcomes that merit closer examination in the following sections.

A breadth of knowledge in arts and sciences is an essential component of a liberal college education. A broad exposure to science, social sciences, mathematics, humanities, histories, languages, and the arts has several benefits beyond the retention of specific knowledge in each of these areas. A foundation in a diverse array of academic subjects “prepares graduates to think more broadly, to conceptualize at a multidisciplinary level that’s more responsive to the increasingly broad issues confronting people in all walks of life” (Herman, 2000). The importance of such a broad base is not in the memorization of discrete facts from a variety of fields, but in the ability to think between academic disciplines, draw inspiration from historical lessons, and develop meaning through the incorporation of multiple perspectives simultaneously.

In Forbes magazine, Mark Mills and Julio Ottino, a physicist and an engineer, endorsed humanistic training by suggesting “that the government funding agencies ought to support ‘whole-brain’ research agendas, as opposed to the usual ‘left-brain’ grant proposals” (as cited in Edelstein, 2010). Their recommendation comes with an awareness of “the attributes of the humanities found in right-brain thinking: creativity, artistry, intuition, symbology [sic], fantasy, emotions” (as cited in Edelstein, 2010). In combination, the resulting “whole-brain” thinking leads to the development of innovative thinking, a crucial skill that is difficult to teach directly. Innovative thinking, among other skills, is cultivated by exposure to a broad base of knowledge. Therefore, knowledge is the foundation rather than the endpoint in a liberal education that includes a multidisciplinary curriculum.

Innovative thinking is one of many intellectual and practical skills that serve the individual and others, which constitutes the second major theme in my summary of the purpose of higher education. In terms of vocational skills, innovative thinking is a highly prized skill for employees at all levels. A recent publication by MIT’s Sloan Management Review explains that innovation is no longer the responsibility of specialized divisions within corporations, but that innovation has increasingly been thought of as the responsibility of the entire organization (Birkinshaw, Bouquet, & Barsoux, 2011). Essentially, employees should constantly be searching for ways to improve, advance, and create new value. As mentioned by Mills and Ottino, this requires “whole-brain” thinking, which results from a liberal education. Aside from innovative thinking, there are a number of other specific skills that future employers will require. Returning to The Futurist predictions of Roger Herman:
In the years ahead we’ll need more and more workers who can think, collaborate, create, solve problems, communicate, and lead. Demand will be high for people who have learned how to learn; who have a strong multidisciplinary education; and who can adapt easily to whatever comes their way (2000).
Although Herman’s predictions pre-date the AACU’s Liberal Education Outcomes (2005), his recommendations touch on many of the specific skills noted by the organization; including written and oral communication, critical and creative thinking, teamwork, and a propensity for lifelong learning.

Intellectual and practical skills should be marketable to future employers, but should also serve the individual in everyday life. College graduates should be able to articulate their thoughts through written, spoken, and visual communication. They should be resourceful, and be able to navigate increasingly vast amounts of information available through interconnected technology. In order to make sense of this flood of information, graduates should be able to quickly filter through irrelevant content and apply a skeptical lens to unsupported claims. A graduate of a liberal education college will have the ability to work creatively with others to produce collaborative work that spans traditional academic disciplines. While these skills are not vocational skills per say, one can easily see how these skills translate into desirable employee characteristics. However, the inclusion of others into the description of this broad theme is not limited to future employers. There are many others in society that can benefit from the skills gained as a result of a liberal college education.

Remember back to the American Studies graduate who admitted that he would be a less active citizen and less engaged in the world if he had not received a liberal education. This call to civic engagement is a common theme among higher education outcomes, and is mentioned in all five of the summative lists outlined earlier. Civic values such as these may look different between individuals, but the common core seems to be a desire to use the skills acquired during college to affect positive change on one’s surroundings. This sense of empowerment is an important piece of the broader theme of developing personally and socially responsible citizens.

The AACU’s subset of outcomes under the header of individual and social responsibility includes civic responsibility and engagement, ethical reasoning, intercultural knowledge and actions, and propensity for lifelong learning (2005). While these are important traits that should result from a liberal education, I would expand this list to include a sense of empowerment, a belief that positive change is possible, and the rejection of passivity and complacency. These traits form what I refer to as the theme of developing personally and socially responsible citizens. There is an implied call to action in this theme, and an equally implied belief that positive changes are indeed possible. This call to action, partnered with a belief that change is possible, creates an enduring sense of optimism. Higher education should include these beliefs as intended outcomes for the betterment of the individual and society.

The order in which I have presented these themes was intentional, because I believe that there is a foundational dependency on the more basic elements that play a supportive role in helping graduates reach their personal and social potential (Figure 1). First, the breadth of knowledge in arts and sciences provides the base from which inspiration is drawn, through which perspectives can be challenged, and from which insights are formed. Second, the multidisciplinary knowledge is required in order for the individual to gain subsequent intellectual and practical skills that serve the individual and others. The “whole-brain” thinking is required for the full range of skills to be realized, and thus depends on the knowledge base. Finally, in order for the individual to develop into a personally and socially responsible citizen, they must possess a range of useful skills. In this way, the ability for the individual to continue developing personally and socially is dependent on the acquisition of skills, which in tern is dependent on the knowledge base.

Figure 1. Relationship between intended outcomes for a liberal undergraduate education. This figure illustrates the relative foundational aspects of each outcome theme.

A liberal undergraduate education does not operate independently of majors, but compliments the major with a well-rounded curriculum that provides a broad base of knowledge, as mentioned earlier. In terms of vocational preparation, the liberal education should provide flexibility rather than job training. Majors, in this sense, should be thought of as themes or sequences rather than job-ready specializations.

A broad range of coursework, the ability to think creatively, to adapt, and to merge knowledge from diverse areas will benefit future employees. In fact, a 2010 publication by the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that Americans born between 1947-1964, and who received bachelor’s degrees, held around 11 jobs from age 18 to 44 (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2010). Because of this volatility in employment, a flexible and innovative work force will be better prepared to navigate the labor market. In addition, Roger Herman argues that “the riches will go to those who have learned how to learn,” and that “a nucleus of permanent employees will manage the organization, drawing on a wide range of contingent labor … and outsourcing to accomplish the work to be done” (Herman, 2000). It is the purpose of a liberal four-year college to provide the flexible life-long learners who will occupy this nucleus of employees, whereas technical and vocational schools will provide the job-training outcomes for future contingent labor, or to supplement specific skills that are desired in a short amount of time. Four-year colleges with a liberal curriculum, as I have described, should cater to students looking for a profound opportunity to learn, develop, and innovate. In a sense, these students come to college waiting to develop and to be inspired, and are not seeking a purely pragmatic exchange of tuition for future job security. While other paradigms for higher education are developed and thrive in an increasingly occupational education industry, liberal undergraduate education should continue to impart a breadth of knowledge and skills that produce broadly empowered leaders.


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