Liberal arts education rests at the foundation of all American colleges and universities, one just has to dig a little deeper to highlight its importance, Carol Schneider said during last Friday’s installment of the Campus Conversation speaker series.
Schneider, president of the Association of American College and Universities (AACU), spoke on “Changing Understandings in Liberal Education.” Her lecture was the sixth installment of an ongoing speaker series hosted by the Office of the Provost to address the issue of the role of William & Mary as a liberal arts university in the 21st century.
“There’s certainly nobody in this country better suited or better informed, more passionate about the topic of liberal arts education today, than Dr. Carol Schneider,” said William & Mary Provost Michael R. Halleran.
Past topics of the yearlong conversation have included internationalization, the appropriate blend of teaching and research, the importance of the university’s professional programs and providing students the tools to change the world. The final installment of the series will take place April 8 from 4-5:30 p.m. in Millington Hall room 150. That discussion, titled “William & Mary as a Leading Liberal Arts University in the 21st Century: From Conversation to Future Directions,” will focus on the provost’s draft “white paper” report on the conversations.
During last Friday’s lecture, Schneider discussed how the AACU, and more recently, Schneider’s project, the Liberal Education and American Promise initiative, has attempted to advocate and promote the values that a liberal education could provide.
“As some of your students were telling me, it’s often hard to explain even to family what it is that is so valuable about liberal arts education,” Schneider said. “We are trying to change public perception and dialogue about what matters and we are doing so by drawing on changes that the status quo is already making.”
According to Schneider, there has been a trend among a majority of first-generation college students to take less courses in key areas like mathematics, science, humanities, social sciences the arts, and computer science.
“The average student needs a liberal arts education, if they are in college, that is what we ought to promise them and that is what we ought to deliver,” she said. “Right now, even within higher education, there are millions of students who are getting anything but a liberal education.”
In addition, she cited history as also a main cause of the decline in the importance of a liberal arts education. Twenty-first century institutions have built upon a 19th-century foundation of liberal arts, adding such aspects like scholarship and research. Therefore, the modern university is effectively trying to constantly do more, she said, while simultaneously weakening foundation of a liberal arts education.
“Unfortunately, over the course of the 20th century, liberal education has effectively been downsized and it is that downsizing we are trying to upsize,” she said.
The main argument behind LEAP, she said, is the belief that all students should have the right to a comprehensive educational experience that allows them to become mindful and engage in citizenship. To become useful members of society, Schneider said.
“The case we are making towards liberal arts education, is that it is an approach to learning that ought to encompass the entire educational experience, it ought to set standards in every field of study, whether it is in the college of arts and sciences or other pre-professional schools,” she said.
In the end, it is a matter of standardizing varying forms of institutional designs, she said.
“We believe that the higher education community knows what it is trying to do, and needs a common vocabulary, grammar, something we can more readily explain to a more mystified outside world and we need to refocus our efforts so that most of our students are getting this,” Schneider said.