On Quality Higher Education: An Essay in Three Installments, Part 2

To Our Readers: After some reflection, we’ve decided to violate the “rules of the road” with respect to the preferred length of blogs, and we are releasing the second and third blogs in this series at the same time. As always, we welcome and learn from your comments, sent either as notes to us or posted here on the site.

by Howard Gardner and Wendy Fischman

Beyond the Mellon Papers: Our Aspirations for an Education in The Liberal Arts

In the previous blog, we described the goals of an ongoing comprehensive study of education in the liberal arts as well as the challenges entailed in securing reliable evidence of progress in realizing these goals.

The Mellon papers illustrate in graphic detail that the term “liberal arts” can have many meanings. Liberal arts can foreground different kinds of institutionalization and implementation, for different purposes and with different possible results, immediately, in the short run, and in the longer run. How can one make sense of this lexical, vocational, and “deliverable” tangle?

Our reading of the Mellon papers has stimulated us to propose our own vision of an education in the liberal arts. Our vision can be stated succinctly, but its realization and justification requires considerable unpacking.

The principal purpose of a liberal arts education should be the achievement of academic and cognitive growth. Any other purpose needs to be deeply intertwined with these academic and cognitive priorities. By the conclusion of a four-year education in an institution that calls itself a liberal arts school, or that claims to infuse liberal arts significantly into a required curriculum, all graduates should have been exposed to a range of ways of thinking that scholars and other serious thinkers have developed over the decades, sometimes over centuries. Students should have ample practice in applying several ways of thinking; and they should be able to demonstrate, to a set of competent assessors, that they can analyze and apply these ways of thinking. Put specifically and succinctly, graduates should be able to read and critique literary, historical, and social scientific texts; exhibit mathematical, computational, and statistical analytic skills; and have significant practical “hands on” immersion in at least one scientific and one artistic area.

To be clear, this portrait of a liberal arts education is by no means novel; it is reflected in the curriculum developed at a range of institutions at the end of the 19th century, described in Harvard’s influential Red Book at the end of World War II; embodied in “gen ed” and “distribution” requirements at hundreds, if not thousands, of institutions; and foregrounded in the statements and documents of major organizations of higher education, such as the American Association of Colleges and Universities, the Council of Independent Colleges, the COHFE and Ivy League schools, and analogous consortia.

Why is it important, indeed essential, once again to make the claim for the priority of the academic and cognitive enterprise? Our own seven-year study of a range of institutions documents that this priority is all too often honored in the breach, rather than in the observance. Majors and distribution requirements may persist, but the primary academic and cognitive purposes are rarely highlighted and, all too frequently, they are ignored altogether. Instead, as a sector, those of us in non-vocational institutions have gotten sidetracked, caught up in talking about developing students’ independence, self-realization, happiness, character, and ability to gain the knowledge and skills required for their chosen occupations (topics foregrounded in several of the Mellon papers). Of the 1000 students whom we interviewed at length on ten disparate campuses, depressingly few report the experience of exploring new topics and acquiring new ways of thinking as central to their college experience. It is because so many institutions of higher education have undergone “mission sprawl” that we now argue vociferously for getting back on track—staying “true” to the original intention of the liberal arts (and of the liberal arts and sciences).

Even if we re-embrace this classic goal, such a program raises many questions—about additional goals, diverse student bodies, and significant obstacles that individuals may not have faced at earlier times. In the third, final blog in this series, we address a congeries of these issues. We then offer our own suggestions about how best to reaffirm and realize the goals of a liberal arts education in the 21st century.

To read Part 3 in this series, click here.

© 2019 Wendy Fischman and Howard Gardner

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  1. On Quality Higher Education: An Essay in Three Installments, Part 3 | Howard Gardner - April 1, 2019

    […] the previous blog, we called for an affirmation—or, more properly, a reaffirmation—of the academic and cognitive […]

  2. On Quality Higher Education: An Essay in Three Installments, Part 1 | Howard Gardner - April 1, 2019

    […] read Part 2 in this series, click […]

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