Toward That Second Century: Making Liberal Education Inclusive

By Schneider, Carol Geary | Liberal Education, Summer 2014 | Go to article overview

Toward That Second Century: Making Liberal Education Inclusive


Schneider, Carol Geary, Liberal Education


As AAC&U's centennial year approaches, AAC&U leaders have been looking backward to the root commitments that have guided this association for nearly a century and planning forward to the next generation of work to make liberal education more empowering and more inclusive.

To my mind, the most consequential development for AAC&U and the entire higher education enterprise is the tectonic shift that has made postsecondary learning the necessary portal for virtually anyone who seeks expanded economic opportunity and a purchase on middle-class life. The current policy effort to send 60 percent of Americans to postsecondary education within this decade is, or at least ought to be, an extraordinary opportunity to build new capacity both for individual graduates and for our society as a whole.

But are we prepared to seize fully the potential of this new policy determination to send the better part of a generation to higher education? Will history show that we invested successfully in the development of new talent from all parts of our society? Will we be able to look back and say that higher learning built new capacity for democracy's future as well as for the economy? Or will it turn out that we delivered more college credentials but a significantly less empowering education to a very large fraction of this generation of students?

On this score, there is real reason for deep concern. Proposals abound for having students, especially low-income students, move through college on their own, with generic "coaches" rather than highquality faculty and with automated bubble tests rather than the engaged learning projects that actually build high-level capability. Even educators who ought to know better are now busily "innovating" to further fragment the curriculum, with entirely predictable consequences for the degradation of learning. All of this may indeed save money. But in a world crying out for innovation and creative change, the routinization of shallow learning is most certainly the wrong choice for our future.

Narrow instrumentalism and anti-intellectualism have long been powerful forces both in US society at large and in many of the headlined proposals to make higher education less costly and more accessible. And today, strikingly, even as students young and older flock to college, instrumentalism and anti-intellectualism are driving efforts to steer learners, especially low-income learners, toward narrow forms of training that may carry the label of "college" but that, in fact, exclude by design the most important aspects of a high-quality education: broad, big-picture learning; cuttingedge scholarly inquiry; deep engagement with hard questions; evidence-based reasoning; and, the crucial key to all the above, a full complement of accomplished faculty who are themselves well supported by their institutions.

The United States is coming, in sum, to a quality and equity crossroads. Will we continue the US pattern-already deeply entrenched at all levels of schooling-of offering high-quality learning to the few, while providing only narrow training or shallow, fragmented learning to the many? Or will we mobilize once and for all to make high-quality and liberating education our priority for all students and democracy's first obligation to those from historically underserved groups?

With these crucial choices in view, AAC&U will focus intensively during the upcoming centennial year on the kind of learning that builds new social capital, both for individuals and for society, and on effective strategies for providing an empowering education across all sectors of higher education-not just in honors programs, not just in the most honored institutions. We invite you, our members, to join in active partnership with us in an all-hands-on-deck effort to make high-quality learning truly inclusive-with a special focus on first-generation students of all backgrounds who are likely to benefit most from a great education, but who must look to educators rather than families to help them determine what a great education really is. …

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