Liberal Education

"Light the Danger Up": Reflections of AAC&U's New President

The week I had the honor of being selected as AAC&U’s fourteenth president, I also had the privilege of introducing Harvard historian Jill Lepore at an awards ceremony in Washington, DC. Lepore was being celebrated for her national leadership in advancing the cause of liberal education, and I was absolutely thrilled to be meeting the author about whom I had come to know so much. Among the stories I enjoyed the most was one involving how Lepore’s life was changed by a “once in a lifetime teacher.” As a fourteen-year-old, she was given an English assignment by this teacher to write a letter to her nineteen-year-old self. When the correspondence arrived in the mail five years later, it stopped Lepore in her tracks and subsequently shaped the direction of her career.

In learning about Lepore’s trajectory, I couldn’t help but think about the dramatic changes in my own life during that same short span of time between the ages of fourteen and nineteen—my transfer from a fledgling community college to a residential liberal arts college for women; my growing understanding, as a recipient of Pell grants and Comprehensive Employment and Training Act funds, of the impact that access to excellence in higher education can have for those at the lowest socioeconomic rungs; my burgeoning commitment to the civic mission of colleges and universities, inspired by my engagement in community-based learning; and my introduction to the study of philosophy, resulting in a lifelong passion for the discipline and its practice. Each of these transitions, like Lepore’s, foregrounds the transformative power of education.

Lepore’s transformation came in the form of her emergence as one of our nation’s most prolific proponents of microhistory—a field she describes as founded on the assumption that “however singular a person’s life may be, the value of examining it lies not in its uniqueness, but in its exemplariness, in how that individual’s life serves as an allegory for broader issues affecting the culture as a whole.”1 My acquaintance with microhistory through Lepore’s work happened to coincide with a colleague of mine pointing me to a letter written by Emily Dickinson to her cousins in May of 1863. Reading it, my mind immediately turned to the idea of examining a life in its exemplariness.

Enmeshed in the Civil War, Dickinson told her relatives “I must keep ‘gas’ burning to light the danger up, so I could distinguish it.”2 The poet’s words reflect her unflinching pursuit of the truth, sprung from a humanistic sense that enables individuals to discern the patterns dominating their lives and to move beyond their narrow points of view in order to bridge multiple modes of understanding. Dickinson wanted to “light the danger up”—not turn away from it. She sought to look boldly at what others either could not or did not want to see. In the midst of national dissension and uncertainty, she strove to use every ounce of her being in the process of discovery—perhaps understanding that deliberative democracy, especially in times of crisis, relies on the creation of a critical public culture that foments reasoned debate and independent thought.

Dickinson was well aware that one cannot cope with complexity through fragmented consciousness and discourse, or thrive on an entire diet of bread and circuses—a lesson even more salient in today’s globally interdependent world, in which rapidly changing technology can mean rapid obsolescence. Yet much of the current political discourse posits the illumination of consciousness achieved through literature, philosophy, science, music, and the arts as a luxury, discounting the genuine value of that which allows us to flourish fully as human beings, while simultaneously offering tools for grappling with the most fundamental questions of human existence.

From assertions that we need more welders and fewer philosophers to proposals that students at “non-elite” institutions should not receive federal student loans for majoring in the humanities, critics suggest that a liberal education is not only frivolous, but downright un-American. By supplanting the notion of college as a public good with the idea that earning power is the only legitimate reason for pursuing a degree, such rhetoric threatens to drastically undermine our nation’s historic commitment to educating citizens for democracy. Indeed, the prevailing discourse perpetuates a growing economic segregation in higher education through its treatment of college as a private commodity, contravening the concept that all students are entitled to the full promise of American higher education—an ideal that lies at the core of AAC&U’s mission-level commitment to inclusive excellence.

If we hope to redress this trend, those of us within the academy must be willing to engage in an honest and radical reckoning with the extent to which we have failed to take seriously the concerns of those who are raising questions about the worthiness of public and private investments in higher education, concomitantly reinforcing a false dichotomy between a pragmatic education and a liberal education. In response, we must enlarge the national conversation about access to embrace the many ways in which liberal learning and inclusive excellence enrich us all. To do so, faculty and administrators in higher education must partner with K-12 educators, leaders of business and industry, government officials at the state and national levels, and citizens from all walks of life to explore and enact new, innovative approaches demonstrating the true value of liberal education and the importance of eradicating social inequities in order to make excellence inclusive.

We must restore public trust in higher education, and in doing so, we must begin at home. Campus protests across the country have heightened consciousness with respect to a broad range of urgent and compelling issues: the limits of academic freedom, especially in relation to developing inclusive curricula; the legitimacy of “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” in an environment founded on the free exchange of ideas; the implications of campus carry laws for students, faculty, and staff; the meaning of shared governance in the context of widespread accusations of corporatization; the scope of our commitments to access in relation to undocumented students and prisoners; faculty rights and responsibilities in determining reasonable accommodations for increasing numbers of students with learning differences and mental health disorders; and questions surrounding who gets to decide what constitutes offense concerning microaggressions and more overt racist, sexist, ableist, or heteronormative behavior. Addressing these challenges is critical, not only to avoid campus upheaval, but because, as the philosopher Paul Feyerabend reminds us, a hegemony of one tradition over others enforces an unenlightened conformity, thwarting the variety of opinion “necessary for objective knowledge.”3

As AAC&U builds upon Carol Geary Schneider’s extraordinary legacy and its many signature programs through the development of our next strategic plan, we invite and count on your collaboration. One of AAC&U’s most significant strengths is the diversity of our member institutions and the people working at these institutions—from community colleges to research universities, from independent liberal arts colleges and large comprehensives to private nonprofit agencies. What unites us across this diversity is our shared commitment to AAC&U’s mission of making liberal education and inclusive excellence the foundation for institutional purpose and

educational practice. In championing these values, we must, like Dickinson, be willing to “light the danger up,” knowing that together we can fulfill the promise of American higher education by preparing all students with the skills necessary to meet the social and economic challenges of the future, grounded in civic learning and democratic engagement.

Notes

1. Jill Lepore, “Historians Who Love Too Much: Reflections on Microhistory and Biography,” Journal of American History 88, no. 1 (2001): 133.

2. Emily Dickinson to Louise and Frances Norcross, late May 1863, in Emily Dickinson Selected Letters, ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986), 183.

3. Paul Feyerabend, Against Method, 3rd ed. (New York: Verso, 2002), 32.

A Message from Carol Geary Schneider to the AAC&U Community

EDITOR’S NOTE: After serving as president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities for eighteen years, from 1998 to 2016, Carol Geary Schneider retired at the end of June. Reprinted below is her farewell message, which was sent to members of the association on her last day in office, June 30, 2016.

Dear AAC&U Colleagues,

In July, AAC&U will welcome Lynn Pasquerella as our new president, and I will open the next chapter of my life and work. I’m writing now to say thank you for your constant support, to share my thoughts on where we are now in the campaign to reinvigorate liberal education and make excellence inclusive, and to let you know how to stay in touch.

First, my deepest thanks. It has been an extraordinary privilege to serve since 1998 as your president. I will always be grateful for the opportunity I’ve had to learn from—and help illuminate—the dedication and inventiveness that characterize AAC&U member institutions across all sectors—public and private, two-year and four-year, broad-access and selective.

What an incredible period of shared learning this has been!

Trained as a historian interested in the intersections between ideas and institutional practices, I found myself (initially as an AAC&U vice president and then as AAC&U president) thrust into a veritable treasure trove of your ideas and your institutional initiatives—in general education, re-forming majors, diversity and global learning, STEM reform, civic learning and engagement, assessment, inclusive excellence, and above all, your efforts to help diverse and underserved students achieve a coherent and empowering education, whatever their majors and whatever their collegiate institutions.

Probing the intentions behind these myriad curricular, cocurricular, and pedagogical innovations through “deep dives” with campus leaders, faculty, and research scholars, my staff colleagues and I came to see that the established college curriculum—“breadth” followed by “depth”—was in the midst of far-reaching and much-needed reformation.

Setting greater expectations, making the LEAP to inclusive excellence

Inspiringly, AAC&U members have been—for the entirety of my term as your president—collectively reinventing the meaning, scope, design, and inclusiveness of a twenty-first-century liberal education.

Moving inquiry learning to the center, you are seeking—we believe—to create a more intentional, integrative, and public-spirited version of college learning, one that prizes engagement with the challenges of the wider world. You are foregrounding hands-on learning and working to connect college learning with significant questions and real-world contexts.

And, in making these changes, you have enlarged the scope and ambition of the liberal education project—moving it from “exclusionary excellence” toward a new commitment to “inclusive excellence.”

I have worked hard with you, and on your behalf, to simultaneously illuminate, promote, and actually advance these new approaches to liberal education—approaches that include all college students, not just those attending residential institutions or those majoring in liberal arts and sciences disciplines.

For over two decades, my colleagues and I have asked with you: What are we trying to achieve? How do we help students actually acquire the most world-enhancing forms of liberal learning? What does the evidence tell us about “what works”? How can we use that evidence intelligently and responsibly?

The result of this search for new clarity has been LEAP: Liberal Education and America’s Promise. In dialogue with you, LEAP has provided a clear framework for what we actually mean by a high-quality liberal education and inclusive excellence. Keyed to a complex and interdependent world, that framework for inclusive excellence includes

  • a clear and compelling description of the big goals, or Essential Learning Outcomes, of a twenty-first-century liberal education—developed across, and essential to, both the liberal arts and sciences and career-related fields of study;
  • Principles of Excellence that can be used to guide educational practice across programs, institutions, and systems;
  • a strong and evidence-informed focus on high-impact practices that enable students to practice and demonstrate the intended forms of learning;
  • The LEAP Challenge “call” for all students to prepare for, and successfully create, cross-disciplinary “signature work” that is focused on questions that matter, to the students and to society, and that shows their achievement of liberal learning outcomes;
  • the VALUE strategy for assessment, which uses faculty-developed VALUE rubrics to probe students’ authentic work—e.g., projects, papers, e-portfolios—for evidence of their progress.

I am proud of the work we have done to make excellence inclusive through LEAP. I’m equally proud of VALUE’s pioneering work to assess students’ learning through rubric-based review of their authentic work—writing, research, projects, and more. And I’m excited that LEAP’s influence has been amplified through AAC&U’s involvement in the development and road testing of the Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP).

Together, we have created tools for reinvigorating college learning that simply did not exist even a decade ago. And you are using them—ELOs, HIPs, VALUE rubrics, the DQP, Guided Learning Pathways—to advance desperately needed educational change for today’s students.

Closing the deep divide between aspiration and achievement

Yet with all that said, I spent a good chunk of my life studying early modern Puritanism, an endeavor that produced, among other things, my own decidedly Puritan conscience. (Yes, it was in studying the Reformation that I first gained useful insights into reforming “college”—and also about how to proceed with integrity and creativity in a church or higher education system that has been only very partially reformed.)

With that Puritan conscience on full alert, I am acutely aware of the huge disconnect between our community’s aspiration to make excellence inclusive and the actual state of educational practice.

US higher education has a very long way to go before we can say that all or most college students are really getting that combination of big-picture learning, depth in areas of interest, strong cross-cutting skills, examined commitments to self and others, and applied integrative learning that LEAP—channeling our members’ goals—has articulated.

So how do we close the gap between these shared aspirations for an empowering education and students’ actual learning experiences, which remain too often fragmented and superficial rather than integrated and deep? I will share my own thoughts on the work that lies ahead in a future issue of Liberal Education.

But, in brief, it is clear that it will take an educational community—supported by a vigorous, smart, and creative AAC&U—to help overcome the reality that deep inequities stand in the way of underserved students successfully gaining access to the most empowering forms of college learning.

AAC&U can headline the grand direction for “making excellence inclusive,” but it is you, our colleagues, who necessarily do the hard work—across institutions and within programs—of recalibrating and strengthening day-to-day educational practices. And, to say the obvious, you are doing this against whip-strong headwinds, with policy poised to prefer and reward narrow college learning just when our nation is desperate for big-picture learning and new levels of trained intelligence and social imagination.

To my great pleasure, I know that my successor, Lynn Pasquerella, has already led the kind of educational reinvention at Mount Holyoke College that AAC&U both prizes and celebrates. Fresh from the front lines on connecting liberal arts education with students’ career hopes, she will bring her own creativity and dedication to her new leadership role.

I warmly hope that AAC&U’s campaign—on campus and with our publics—to make liberal education inclusive rather than exclusive will not only gain ground during Lynn’s term, but actually win the day.

Nothing would make me happier than to see headlines across the land: “Liberal Education Now Recognized as Essential, Not Optional for Low-Income, First-Generation Students” and “Determined Leaders from All Higher Education Sectors Resolve to Make the LEAP to Quality Liberal Learning for All College Students, Across All Majors, with Underserved Students Now First in Line.” And while I am dreaming on Lynn’s behalf, how about this: “Policy Leaders Collectively Apologize to the Nation for Promoting Meager Curricula and Dismally Reductive Metrics in Their Efforts to ‘Rate’ College Quality.”

Are these just impossible dreams? Our best hope, I strongly suspect, is that determined leaders will resolve to “make the LEAP.” For over one hundred years, AAC&U has benefitted from determined leaders. I know that tradition will continue!

Staying in touch

And, as you go forward, I will be doing what I can to help—now from a new perch, as AAC&U president emerita and, after October 1, as a “fellow” with an organization also strongly committed to bringing quality and equity together. (We’ll write more about that next fall.)

In addition, I will have my own website: www.carolgearyschneider.net.

The website will be a location for the writing, speaking, and advocacy I expect to do when I return from a three-month break as well as for many of my articles, presentations, and op-eds from my time as president of AAC&U.

I hope you will use the website to stay in touch.

And I equally hope you will give our new president, Lynn Pasquerella, that same unstinting guidance and support you have so generously given me. 

With affection and gratitude,

Carol

 

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