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McCulloch Center Tenth Anniversary Celebration

Carol Geary Schneider ’67
President, Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U)

"Liberal Arts and Global Education in the 21st Century"

Friday, October 24, 2014

It is such a pleasure and an honor to be with you this evening and to be able to add my own thanks and congratulations to Dorothy and Sandy McCulloch for their support of the McCulloch Center for Global Initiatives. And I am delighted to join in the chorus of congratulations to Eva Paus and her colleagues for their work in making the McCulloch Center such a vibrant part of Mount Holyoke.

In my remarks this evening, I want to talk with you about the larger importance—the national and even international importance—of the work you are doing now through the McCulloch Center and in the College as a whole. The viewpoint I bring to these observations is that of a national association whose entire mission is advancing and strengthening liberal education, and working to make the benefits of liberal learning inclusive rather than exclusive.

The organization I lead, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), includes a very large swathe of higher education in the United States, and we have affiliate members in other countries as well. Altogether, we comprise nearly 1,350 member institutions ranging from major universities to virtually all of the nation’s leading liberal arts colleges to many comprehensive and community colleges.

The work we do gives me a very broad purchase on what is happening in higher education and especially in liberal and liberal arts education. From this vantage point, I am very proud to share with you my view that Mount Holyoke College is now positioned as a major leader, an exciting and inspiring leader, in the most important frontiers for liberal and liberal arts education.

The new Lynk initiative that the College is advancing, and the role of the McCulloch Center in helping students expand both their global competence and their participation in communities around the world are—together—bringing an important new dynamism and dimension to the very meaning of a liberal arts education. It is exciting to me as an alumna and former board member to see how far you have come in making global engagement and participatory “real-world” experiences with cross-cultural diversity absolutely central to a twenty-first-century liberal and liberal arts education.

But what do I mean when I say that the work you are doing, both in The Lynk and in the McCulloch Center, now positions Mount Holyoke at the forefront of new frontiers for liberal and liberal arts education?

And why, you probably are asking, does she keep saying “liberal and liberal arts education?” Is there some difference between liberal arts education and liberal education?

To answer those questions, I need to provide a few definitions and distinctions that my association uses to help clarify the broad goals of a high-quality or liberal education and the place of specific liberal arts disciplines in relation to those broad goals.

The term “liberal arts” refers, today, to a set of disciplines and interdisciplinary fields grounded in the humanities, social sciences, science, mathematics, and the arts. These fields of study are central to any high-quality education and certainly to a Mount Holyoke education. But if you look at the baccalaureate degrees being conferred in the U.S. today, you see that over 70 percent of those graduating did not major in one of the liberal arts and sciences fields.

Recognizing this, and insisting as we do that liberal education is the most powerful approach to college learning, certainly in the U.S. and arguably in the world, AAC&U has sought to clarify the larger purposes or goals of liberal education and to show how these cross-cutting purposes apply to any college major—whether that major is public health, or education, or engineering, or business—as well as to the liberal arts and sciences.

In this context, we point to what we see as the three enduring goals of a liberal and liberal arts education: 1) cultivating broad knowledge of the world we inherit—its science, cultures, histories, and social systems; 2) developing intellectual capacities or what we might call “powers of the mind” to reach reasoned judgments about complex questions; and 3) fostering a grounded sense of both ethical and civic or societal responsibility for our communities, for democracy in the U.S., and for the planet we share with the peoples of the world.

These three enduring goals of a liberal education apply to all college majors, no matter what the choice of academic field. In truth, they apply to the entire educational experience, not just to the major field.

The first of those enduring goals, cultivating broad knowledge of the wider world we inherit, underscores the reasons why U.S. educators insist that students in our colleges cannot just study one academic field, and why they really must acquire broad knowledge across the sciences, humanities, arts, and social sciences. It is also a goal that becomes newly important as we prepare students for global competence, and not just Western or Eurocentric competence.

AAC&U uses the term liberal education—which is also the term most commonly used in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—to affirm that these broad and enduring goals of a liberal education apply to career and professional fields as well as to liberal arts and sciences fields. 

We reserve the term “liberal arts” to describe institutions and fields of study where students work on the broad goals of liberal education almost exclusively through study in arts and sciences fields. In this sense, a focus on the liberal arts and sciences is Mount Holyoke’s distinctive strategy for providing a liberal education.

While the three broad goals of a liberal education are indeed enduring, the fact is that the way we approach these goals is constantly evolving.

For example, while we now see the major as central to liberal and liberal arts education, the nineteenth-century college did not typically offer majors at all. The major is a creation of the twentieth-century college and university. Similarly, the way we cultivate the powers of the mind has changed radically. In earlier times, students studied classical languages and texts; today they do research, work on collaborative projects, and use digital as well as traditional tools and techniques.

And, in this twenty-first-century world of global interconnections and interdependence, our vision of the broad knowledge graduates will really need has expanded dramatically. Today’s students will certainly need, both as professionals and as civic-minded human beings, the broad global competencies that the McCulloch Center has defined as its goals.

When I was a student at Mount Holyoke, I was required to take only one course about a culture outside the West. Today, the College as a whole, and the McCulloch Center in particular, are creating an immersive global context for the entirety of our students’ education. This is an important development and one that limns the future, not just for Mount Holyoke, but for liberal and liberal arts education as an enterprise.

But calling for students’ development of global competencies leads us directly to the question of how we help students successfully develop not just an understanding of global developments, but the practical capacities—the trained intelligence and social imagination—necessary to apply their learning to help solve what the McCulloch Center calls “pressing global problems” and “common [human] needs.”

From my national vantage point, taking stock of the evolving landscape across higher education, it seems to me that one of the most important developments in both liberal and liberal arts education is the emergence of what we at AAC&U call “the twenty-first-century liberal art”—specifically: students’ active, ongoing, and guided practice in learning to integrate and apply their learning to complex questions and real-world settings.

The emerging emphasis—national and at Mount Holyoke—on integrative and applied learning helps students put the different pieces of their education together—connecting knowledge, skills, values, experience, and reflection on their learning. The new emphasis on applied liberal learning teaches students to connect theory and practice and to use each to enlarge and amend the other. These emphases help students see why a good liberal arts education includes meaningful study in multiple disciplines and why it places so much emphasis on students’ learning with and from people whose backgrounds are very different than their own. Applied learning is really the most powerful way to help students discover their genuine need for the insights of diverse peers and collaborators. It makes integrative learning not just a theoretical possibility but a lived and often transformative experience.

And this is where I see Mount Holyoke breaking new ground. Through The Lynk, you are now expecting all Mount Holyoke students to have at least one guided experience of real-world learning, a paid internship. But equally important, from my point of view, you are organizing to help students link (or lynk) that hands-on learning experience to their academic studies and you are providing guided opportunities for students to reflect on their experiential learning and to compare the insights they’re gaining with those of other students.

Through the McCulloch Center, moreover, you are making these real-world experiences global, cross-cultural, and in the very best sense of the word, reciprocal with other communities and diverse perspectives. At Mount Holyoke, practical intelligence is becoming global intelligence. This is good, not just for the College, but for the future of higher education and, indeed, of our shared world.

Many institutions make participatory “real-world” learning experiences available to students. But Mount Holyoke is one of just a handful that are now making real-world learning required for all students.  

Moreover, you are creating new practices that both help students prepare in highly intentional ways to make the most of their real-world learning and help them reflect together, with faculty, on what they actually encountered in these “real-world” contexts. This, in my view, is where the full meaning of a multidisciplinary liberal arts education really comes to life.

When students work on real-world problems—whether contemporary problems like public health, or enduring problems like peace and justice—they find that they are necessarily working across academic disciplinary boundaries. No really important question can be framed satisfactorily through the lens of a single academic field or a single human being. By working with community partners and mentors on complex problems, students come to see with new clarity their need for, and even dependence on, diverse perspectives and diverse ways of encountering the world. They experience liberal and liberal arts education, not as a set of courses, but rather as the bringing together of the entirety of their learning—knowledge, skills, values, practical intelligence, judgment, and inventiveness—to create needed solutions to important questions.

I recognize, of course, that one impetus for these new orientations to real-world learning at Mount Holyoke is your decision to help students connect college with careers and to prepare more intentionally for work following graduation. So often, we make this kind of observation apologetically, as though we were somehow betraying the (Aristotelian) roots of the liberal arts tradition.

To my mind, this determination to help students connect their college learning with their future work is a huge source of strength. We want our students to help create solutions to problems we need to solve as a society, problems in the workplace and the economy, problems of justice, and dignity, and sustainability in our democracy and in the global community. I have long thought it very odd (and even perverse) that some liberal arts educators try to shield students from real-world experience when it is so clear that liberal and liberal arts education—at their best—build capabilities, perspectives, and values that our society urgently needs.

The Lynk and the McCulloch Center are helping Mount Holyoke students work together on complex problems and, through that experience, come to see themselves as problem solvers. And, global problem solving is most assuredly an investment in the future decency, integrity, and sustainability of our shared world.

To put it differently, Mount Holyoke is repositioning the liberal arts as a “can-do” curriculum, a curriculum (and cocurriculum) that intentionally fosters students’ capacities to work together to create solutions to the many big questions and what some call “wicked problems” we face, at home and abroad. 

This winter, my association will celebrate its centennial, 100 years of effort, not just to promote liberal and liberal arts education, but to help higher education connect the strengths of that tradition with the needs of a changing world. To mark this milestone, we will challenge the entire educational community to engage all students with what we are calling “Signature Work”—investigation and problem solving related to one or more significant questions—questions important to the student and questions important to our shared global future. The idea is that every student’s portfolio should show, not just what courses she took or what grades she earned, but rather what she really cared about, the questions that engaged her, and the learning she brought to those questions.

As we have worked on the concept of students’ Signature Work, I have been guided by my own transformative experiences at Mount Holyoke College. Specifically, I have thought back to my experience in Miss Brock’s section of Baby English, that required two-semester course that all first-years had to take when I was a student at the College. It was Miss Brock’s habit to bring each student in for a private interview that would help us choose our research paper topic for her course. She asked each student—and she asked me—what is a question you really care about? What do you most want to find out through your research?

I believe this is a question that colleges should ask every student. What are the questions behind your choices—whether of courses, or projects, or global study? What do you most care about?

A liberal arts education should help students bring those questions to the fore. It should help students see themselves as gaining the preparation, the competence, the actual experience of doing something significant with those questions.

The McCulloch Center is helping Mount Holyoke graduate students who will not only see themselves as global leaders, but, importantly, will bring cross-cultural experience and practical intelligence to global problem solving. The center’s work is given new centrality and huge societal importance by Mount Holyoke’s decision to invest comprehensively in integrative and applied learning—that twenty-first-century liberal art.

I am so proud of the work the College is doing. What you are doing here is important for Mount Holyoke College and its students. But it is also important for the future of liberal education nationally and internationally. And, on behalf of that wider community, I want to thank you for your vision and your leadership.