April 1, 2014
"Liberal education: An approach to college learning that empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change."
Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU), “What is a 21st Century Liberal Education?”
I like the word 'general', I really do. I use it to set a discussion around 'general principles' or to indicate a collection of ideas that dominate a topic such as 'generally speaking …’
But the world would be a better place if we never used 'general' and 'education' together. As in 'general education'. No, let me be more emphatic - the phrase 'general education' not only does not describe what we want our students to experience, it establishes a false notion of what it really is and this can only uninspire even the most dedicated learner. Let's get rid of the term 'general education'.
Okay, now what? What about liberal education? This phrase is often used in the literature to classically refer to those skills such as critical thinking, communication, ethical reasoning, and civic engagement that we want our students to have when they graduate. Not bad. But I have lost count of the number of conversations I've had when the person I've talked with mistakenly assumes I'm talking about 'politically correctness' or a liberal political philosophy. Nothing could be further from the truth. The term 'liberal education' unsurprisingly comes from the Latin when in Roman times, the free (libre) citizen was expected to have a broad set of skills that would prepare them for engagement in civic affairs such as debate, law, and service in the military. And even when I tell people this is what liberal education means, they still are suspicious. So use liberal education cautiously but let's find another term.
Ok, now that I have that off my chest, what term would I like to see used? Well, I am very fond of 'liberating education' promoted by Robert Scott, president of Adelphi University.
Why liberating? Because that is precisely what such an education does - it liberates! A liberating education frees the individual from the shackles of one-dimensional thinking and enables them to question assumptions, put ideas into historical and multicultural perspectives, communicate and articulate a reasoned, deliberate, and intentional dialogue. A liberating education is a cornerstone to an informed electorate, a citizenry that is compassionate, fair and just, and a society that is well-functioning. The notion of a democracy simply cannot be discussed without assuming that the people have or at least aspire to have a liberating education. And at the very least, universities and colleges have an obligation to fulfill their 'public good' mandate by teaching a liberating education. (Yes, even private universities have a 'public good' obligation.)
This notion of a liberating education is especially important for a university like Rochester Institute of Technology. Indeed, survey after survey of business professionals, corporate hiring staff, and CEOs indicate that these leaders want more and better liberating education, not less.
Think about it. We do a terrific job at instilling a set of professional, technical and creative skills in our students - so much so that 95% of our graduates either end up with a job in their field or go onto to graduate school. But there is this constant sense - a murmur perhaps - that we could and should do more to help our students succeed as life-long learners, to equip them with the skills they need to advance from their entry-level positions, and to truly have that path that a career defines.
I am so happy that RIT has already done much to dispel this murmur. We approved and embraced a new framework for a liberating education at RIT as we converted to semesters - yes, we call it our 'general education' (sigh!) framework but it really is a crown jewel in our academic portfolio that paves the way for a liberating education. (By the way, check out the new website for general (sigh) education at RIT here. Dr. Elizabeth Hane, faculty associate for general (sigh) education, led this effort and the website is just terrific. Built around a foundational set of courses, the framework includes a set of perspective courses that are designed to expose students to the fundamental RIT learning outcomes and indeed of a liberating education. The framework is 'capped' by a set of immersion courses that allow the learner to take a deeper dive into areas of great interest, again within the notion of a liberating education.
In addition to the new framework, we also take pride in transforming our approach to writing by our adoption of a writing-across-the-curriculum. This education jewel clearly belongs in our liberating education crown because not only does it address a fundamental learning outcome, namely, writing, but it also embodies an integrative ideal. By this I mean that we do not simply teach writing as part of the 60 semester credit hours attributed to general (sigh!) education but we also teach writing intensive courses in the programs such as computer science and engineering. This integrative approach allows students to synthesize what they learned in the first year writing course with the content of their discipline, an important aspect of the liberating concept. I have no doubts that our new approach to writing education will transform our graduates and will serve them well not only in their first job, but their career, and in their role as an educated citizen.
So here's the rub. If we, the RIT community, are to truly embrace a liberating education for our students, why should we stop with writing? What if we took an integrative approach to critical thinking, to ethical reasoning, to multicultural and international awareness, and yes, even to civic engagement? Five sturdy pillars on which to build our liberating education framework. Yes, there are probably more but communication, critical thinking, ethical reasoning, multicultural awareness, and civic engagement certainly need to take their place prominently.
In the coming months, I hope and expect that you will soon see more conversations in curriculum committees and in academic senate debating the merits of critical thinking and ethical reasoning across the curriculum. I look forward to the dialogue and I hope all faculty become engaged in the discussions.
But whether or not we are able to take a more integrative approach in our liberating education, I do hope and yes expect that all faculty and staff see the real value and contribution that a liberating education can make on our students. We need to stop telling our students to 'get their general education out of the way' and we need to start telling them the great intentionality of our liberating education and why it will serve them so well throughout their lives. We need to share our stories of our own liberating education with our students to inspire their learning, to light the fire of their passion for life-long learning, and to see the world through a healthy multi-dimensional lens of thinking. Let's do this. Together we can do something truly wonderful for our students and by doing so, we will put a bold flag in the ground that RIT holds the concept of a liberating education as self-evident.
 “The False Choice: Liberal Education vs. Professional Education,” Trusteeship, January/February 2014, p.45-48.
 Elizabeth is no longer talking to me since the term 'general education' is infused throughout her wonderful site.