Changing Practices in Liberal Education: What Future Faculty Need to Know

Article excerpt

Liberal education has been this nations signature educational philosophy since the founding. It has altered dramatically both in its subject matter and in its practices over the centuries, but through all the changes, it has held pride of place in the academy in part because of its inspiring aims (see editors introduction) and in part because of its capacity to adapt to a changing world.

Today, liberal education is again engaged in one of those transitional periods that historically have resulted in far-reaching and transformative educational change. Transformative change is not always positive, and the outcome for liberal education in the present era is far from certain. But whether positive or negative, widespread changes in educational practice will assuredly have farreaching implications for the disciplines that have been central to liberal education in the twentieth-century academy and for the faculty who teach them. For this reason alone, those charged with stewardship of the disciplines need to look beyond their fields to the larger educational landscape and address contemporary trends and contests around undergraduate education.

It is widely understood that a generational shift is underway on our campuses as a large cohort of senior faculty moves into retirement and new faculty arrive to take their places. It has not been noted, however, that these new faculty members are entering their careers at a pivotal moment in the history of American higher education and in the social history of liberal education. If this new generation of faculty members-future faculty still in graduate school and new faculty still in the early years of their careers-will seize the opportunity presented by this transitional era and make a real commitment to the reinvigoration of the undergraduate experience, they can collectively seed a new flowering of liberal education. With an ever-increasing percentage of the population now heading to college, the result could be extraordinary, both for our graduates and, through the quality of their learning, for our society.

But if this new generation does not take up the challenge of educational renewal, we may find, a few decades hence, that the current era of far-reaching change has been primarily destructive, leading to the permanent marginalization of the liberal education tradition-and many of the disciplines associated with it-in all but a small set of colleges and universities.

Both prospects are already fully in view.

Liberal Education in Transition:

Which Road to the Future?

Tens of thousands of college and university faculty members across the country-in every discipline-already are engaged in widespread curricular and pedagogical innovations that, collectively, have the potential to produce that twenty-first century flowering of liberal education. AAC&U and The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching-the cosponsors of this issue of Peer Review-have joined forces in our enthusiasm for the educational possibilities that these teacher/scholars are creating, and in our shared determination both to foster and to champion a more engaged, integrative, and socially responsible approach to liberal education. Our common purpose is to provide the advantages of a rigorous, public-spirited, and intellectually challenging liberal education to all college students.

At the same time, we also see widespread resistance to the very idea of liberal education-by policy makers, by the public, and by many students. Many of those in a position to make decisions about the future and the funding of higher education honestly believe that liberal education is a luxury rather than a necessity, and that the right educational focus-for most students and most of the academy-is career training and workforce development.

Those who have benefited from liberal education understand immediately the fallacy in this dismissal. In our knowledge-driven economy, every participant in the workforce will most certainly need the intellectual skills and big-picture understandings fostered by a strong liberal education. …