Monday, 16 November 2015

on liberal education

A recent paper (Chaddock & Cooke 2015) considers the history of liberal education and how our understanding of what it means has changed over time. It was once termed liberal arts which focused on content. In recent decades it has changed to liberal education which emphasizes process. What I found interesting in the paper is how liberal education always seems to be stretched between two opposing views:

  • general vs professional education
  • classics (e.g. the Great Books) vs current context
  • shared (imposed) curriculum vs freedom to set own course of study
  • sciences vs arts
  • skills training vs education for citizenship
  • research vs liberal arts
  • creating knowledge vs disseminating knowledge
  • liberalism vs utilitarianism
  • culture vs science
  • past vs present
What Chaddock and Cooke discuss in their paper, however, is that these tensions were much more nuanced than is typically understood. Often opposing sides were simply in opposition in terms of degree and not that liberal education should be this vs that. For example, some would argue greater emphasis on a common experience whereas others would emphasize giving students greater freedom in choosing their courses. But neither side would say there should be no common experience or no freedom of choice. The argument typically distilled down to the number of credits assigned to each.

The AAC&U have attempted to hold on to these tensions by advocating their essential learning outcomes (skills and knowledge) without imposing them on any one discipline and thus do not contrast general vs specialized education. Their learning outcomes simply need to be embedded throughout students' curricula. The advantage is that attention to these outcomes has the potential to produce coherent learning throughout the degree rather than having skills and knowledge parceled out to individual courses. A different compromise between shared experiences vs student freedom to explore learning was developed in the early 20th C with students being required to complete a distribution of courses across the arts and sciences in addition to a concentrated focus in one discipline. In recent decades this has become the general education requirements and major that all students must complete to earn their undergraduate degree. This is the compromise the Augustana core developed in the mid-2000s with our general education + major requirements being within a choice of courses but our skills being met across the curriculum. Thus our core is a hybrid of what was developed in the early 20th C plus what is being advocated by AAC&U.

I like what the AAC&U are recommending especially in the light that they encourage institutions to implement their essential learning outcomes in a manner that makes sense for individual colleges and universities - they understand that local context matters. However, these still seem to me to be recommendations about what to teach. I am beginning to wonder whether how we teach plays a greater role in students' education than what we teach.....