Preparing for an Interconnected World: The Case for Liberal Education

True teachers are those who use themselves as bridges over which they invite their students to cross; then, having facilitated their crossing, joyfully collapse, encouraging them to create their own.

-Nikos Kazantzakis, poet and novelist (1883-1957)

As I write this, “our country” is working to encourage more and more students to attend college. Affordability is important. So is making sure we have people to fill positions in the job markets of the future (at least the immediate future). Thus, policymakers have strong opinions about how best to get students into colleges. Mostly, this involves a community college component to keep things cheap and a more lenient transition to larger state universities.

I beg to differ with this approach. I think Nikos would agree. His character, Zorba the Greek, would have never made it through this factory model. Yet the world is crying out for Zorbas. Unfortunately, the only place developing the world’s next Zorbas are liberal arts campuses.

Case in point, consider a recent newsletter I received in my Inbox. It had three major stories at the top:

  • Students in one class held a competition involving recipes. All had to be created using foods that could be bought using food stamps. The winner made a tasty Mexican dish, and the recipe caught national attention.
  • Another class was focusing on students learning how to start foundations and charitable organizations. Their class brought in experienced directors from around the philanthropic world.
  • A third article discussed the work of three students in theatre. Over the summer, they had created their own theatre company, a type of self-service summer stock. They produced four shows, two of which were sold-out performances. Important: they spent the summer 200 miles from campus—it was their own initiative, hard work, and creativity.

These three stories have one thing in common: they deal with the actual work of undergraduate students. They have one less tangible thing in common: they demonstrate the success of this institution in encouraging students to become successful people.

Unlike the community colleges mentioned above, this institution is a liberal arts college. The students in the first two examples were not majoring in food science or sociology; they came from all different majors. The students in the third were theatre majors, but they also were given the emotional and academic safety of daring and doing. So…they did. In all three cases, this is significantly different from a cookie-cutter philosophy. It instead focuses on learning about the bigger picture, learning about how the world actually works.

Unlike large universities, smaller schools do not have a strong cadre of graduate students to make headlines. Although liberal arts colleges have fine faculty, they often focus on teaching undergraduate students. Big research projects don’t always come from small campuses, though it’s not unheard of. However, the star researchers do not necessarily make fine teachers, and many undergraduate students find themselves being taught by the graduate students. It can become misleading, in a way. Go to this huge school for a bachelor’s degree because of its stellar reputation—fueled by professors teaching graduate students.

If we are truly working to develop more creative, thoughtful leaders for our nation, it would behoove us to structure a curriculum that puts undergraduate students in situations where they make decisions that matter. It would help if we taught students less about course requirements, deadlines, and checklists–and more about:

  • different ways of knowing things
  • how to synthesize ideas, and
  • created environments where undergraduate students were free to try things, learn new ideas, and make mistakes.

If we are looking to higher education to develop the next great leaders for the free world, the answer lies in liberal education. Right now, the unfortunate focus is on continuing a public school model everyone seems to agree doesn’t fit this purpose.

Hopefully, leaders will lead. After all, many of them have a liberal arts education. If they do, we will see more of the model that works…and less of one doomed to long-term failure by its very design.

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About Paul T. Henley, Ph. D.

http://www.nitle.org/about/bios/henley.php
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