On Quality Higher Education: An Essay in Three Installments, Part 1

by Howard Gardner and Wendy Fischman

Background: The Mellon Papers

Thanks to the generosity of several funders, including The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, over the last seven years we have had the privilege of studying non-vocational higher education in the United States. We originally called our study “Liberal Arts and Sciences in the 21st Century,” but, as a result of our 2000 interviews, we came to realize that the phrase “liberal arts and sciences” has little meaning for most constituents—and is often misunderstood. Still the phrase has considerable resonance within the higher education community. Indeed, as part of a recently undertaken much larger study of the sector, The Mellon Foundation commissioned several papers on the liberal arts, and these papers have now been posted here.

The papers, well worth reading, cover a range of topics: definitions of liberal arts (varied, needless to say); the history of liberal arts education in the United States (dating back to the seventeenth century); and the relationship between an education described as liberal arts and a survey of possible and desirable outcomes: vocational, financial, cognitive, social, civic, and artistic, both in the short run and over the course of a lifetime.

Perhaps not surprisingly—and appropriately, given that the wide-ranging Mellon study itself will unfold over the next several years—the papers raise provocative questions in lieu of providing reasonably definitive answers.

What do we know? Attending and completing college certainly raises one’s income over the course of a lifetime; the study of humanities is less lucrative (particularly in the short run) than the study of engineering, science, or the “hard” social sciences. Once one goes beyond financial payoff, however, patterns are difficult to discern. It’s hard to demonstrate—particularly to a skeptic—that a liberal arts education makes you smarter, a better thinker and communicator, a kinder, happier, more civic-minded person, or a more likely voter.

To reach firm conclusions, one must compare graduates of a liberal arts college to those who have graduated from a vocational or professionally oriented school, as well as those who went right to work after high school or who had some kind of a “gap” experience—ranging from a year to a decade or more. Such comparisons have a self-selection problem (with different kinds of students presumably choosing the respective route). Additionally, we don’t know whether desirable outcomes occur because of which individuals choose to go to college and which ones make it through to graduation, or because the “higher scorers” go to one kind of college rather than to another. Nor can we state with confidence whether positive outcomes occur in institutions that describe themselves as liberal arts, that require courses in the liberal arts, that mandate some sort of distribution requirement, and/or that showcase some other feature or combination of features. And of course it would be important to find out whether any documented outcomes persist—or perhaps emerge more powerfully—over a much longer period of time.

It’s a laudable goal of the much larger Mellon study to tease out which of these dispositions are causally related to completing a liberal arts education and which can be tied to certain programs at certain institutions or certain kinds of institutions. We hope that it will succeed! But even in this era of easily gathered and easily analyzed “big data,” it’s not a foregone conclusion that we’ll know in five years about the effects—or, less happily, the non-effects—of an education anchored in the liberal arts and sciences.

In the ensuing blogs, we present our own vision of a quality education in the liberal arts and address some of the challenges to this vision.

To read Part 2 in this series, click here.

© 2019 Wendy Fischman and Howard Gardner

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5 Comments on “On Quality Higher Education: An Essay in Three Installments, Part 1”

  1. Soledad , Alicia and Clara September 27, 2019 at 1:02 am #

    Goodnight. We are students of a University of Buenos Aires UAI. We found the text very interesting since it presents several perspectives. This enriches our learning. We want to know if quality education can be achieved with inclusion at the university level

    • Howard Gardner October 3, 2019 at 7:49 pm #

      This is where ‘onboarding’ becomes very important. If students do not feel that they belong to the university community, then it is unlikely that they will be motivated or able to do high quality word. And so universities need to make extra efforts to help students fit into the community. Of course, that’s not always possible– and in such cases it’s hard to achieve high quality learning.

      • María Soledad October 13, 2019 at 11:59 pm #

        We want to thank you from Argentina, Interamerican Open University, for the contributions you made all these years in education. We can bet on a better world
        A hug


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