Liberal Education, Effective Citizenry and “Democracy’s College” Graduate

2014 Diversity & Democracy

You can’t be involved in Community College education without running into the external scrutiny that often comes with a new proposed solution to the challenges of teaching such a diverse group of students crossing the thresholds of our campuses. No sooner have we developed our latest version of General Education requirements when a new approach is before us, one that promises to move more of our students from struggling receptors of knowledge to gleaming graduates.

Whether it is a focus on General Education, Disruptive Advising, Learning Outcomes, or Guided Pathways, the elements of creating a successful graduate are complex and highly variable. All of them contain merit and are worthy of our attention and consideration, especially when blended together in a thoughtful way, with input from all stakeholders and implemented in a balanced approach that still allows for flexible applications within individual student circumstances. The goal, after all, is not to eliminate variability. And it is not to eliminate the liberal arts in favor of more vocational work-preparation skills. The goal, at least as described by one college, was to create a series of outcomes that “modeled the core values of communication, critical thinking, and respect for diverse opinions” (Rodicio, 2014) which are hallmarks of good citizenship. Rodicio, who is provost for Academic and Student affairs at Miami Dade College (MDC), and president of the Association for General and Liberal Studies, shares the story of their college’s transition in an article titled Modeling Democratic Practices through General Education Reform: A Developmental Journey.

At MDC, the nation’s largest community college, faculty, staff and leadership have taken on this challenge. They’ve applied a  very democratically designed approach in reexamining their general education requirements into a series of College Learning Outcomes. Responding to pressures to be more accountable for learning results, they began by defining the question: “What learning outcomes must our students achieve in order to become effective citizens an lifelong learners?” Their resulting goal as “democracy’s college” is both admirable and achievable.

“…for every graduate to become a well-informed citizen who can effectively – and actively – participate in civic and economic life within a diverse and globally connected environment.”

As they moved through a multi-year process that began with college-wide conversations across seven campuses and outreach centers, a series of events were held in such a way as to ensure involvement with faculty, staff, and students. They moved from developing a set of General Education Outcomes, eventually renamed College Learning Outcomes, and developing Learning Outcomes Assessments. Annual campus dialogues are held by faculty to review results and examine the implications they may have on student learning. In 2007, the college community “reaffirmed the importance of liberal learning in developing a well-informed citizenry in a global community” through a covenant which was signed by members of the college community, including representatives from students, faculty, college leaders, and the local community (Rodicio, 2014, Padron, 2008).

Recognizing that different initiatives can be interconnected, Miami Dade College has more recently begun to implement guided pathways which they called a “Roadmap to Completion” in a pilot program that involved bringing together some existing resources into a more comprehensive support system. They believe that the framework that a more defined pathway not only may lead to more graduates, but it can also improve attainment of the broader college learning outcomes.

Read the complete article that tells the full story, and find the full list of Miami Dade’s Learning Outcomes here.

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The Quest for Critical Thinking – Essays on one of education’s greatest challenges

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It isn’t enough that we train students to put widget A into slot B so they can fulfill the old-fashioned notion of the manufacturing jobs of the past. Employers nowadays are asking for highly skilled graduates to fill their growing number of positions in the post-recession job market. And among the most commonly-stated job skills are really soft skills that revolve around critical thinking.

What IS critical thinking? It is the notion that we can make reasoned decisions, judgements that are based on analysis of a particular situation, that we can synthesize information, context, and experience and reflect upon it in order to guide our actions.

The authors of the essays in a recent publication – The Quest for Critical Thinking – released by Inside Higher Ed, are flexing the very same intellectual muscles in order to examine how to build that capacity into student learning in higher education. For community colleges, we generally have two-year programs that are designed with two outcomes in mind – occupational preparation for entry-level work in a field upon completion of an Associates degree program, or transfer into a four-year program at a university. Many vocational faculty may bristle at the idea that they must include “general education” – liberal arts courses – into their programs while trying to cram in all of the latest greatest training for in-demand skill-sets. Yet liberal arts faculty have difficulty articulating how their courses can help build those critical thinking skills that can expand the longterm employability of graduates.

Author Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University and one of the compilation contributors, wrote in his essay “A World Without Liberal Learning,” about the history of American liberal education beginning with Thomas Jefferson and the University of Virginia. Describing Jefferson’s intentions for having students study a broad range of subjects, Roth said that this built a culture of “free inquiry” that would “help build a citizenry of independent thinkers who took responsibility for their actions in the context of their communities and the new Republic.” Roth argues that we must move beyond the concept of “utilitarian training” warning that if we did not, we would be creating graduates who would be unprepared for a fast-changing world and whose skill-sets would become obsolete before too long.

Asking what America would look like if we were to give up on liberal education in favor of purely vocational training, Roth claims  we would be disempowering students, removing stimulation of lifelong learning and inquiry.

We would become a cultural and economic backwater, competing with various regions for the privilege of operationalizing somebody else’s new ideas. (Michael Roth)

In another essay, Patricia Okker, professor of English and interim deputy provost at the University of Missouri at Columbia, argues that the faculty have an important role to play in making the liberal arts relevant. Titled “It’s the Faculty’s Job, too”, Okker describes how she created a course on career exploration that challenges students to start tying their studies together. Students from many disciplines are asked to do much self-reflection on the transferability of skills gained in their liberal arts courses. Elements of constructive criticism, for instance, provides a skill that builds the ability to provide valuable feedback to employees.

Students still need to identify skills specific to their individual experiences and affinities, and they need lots of practice articulating these strengths to potential employers. (Patricia Okker)

Okker argues that faculty in particular disciplines must become willing partners in the career counseling for students in order to help them recognize and understand the transferability of their skills to the workplace.

Other essays in the compilation address the issue of critical thinking from a wide range of perspectives. Gloria Cordes Larson, president of Bentley University, for instance, argues that that this is “A False Choice” in her essay. Her institution conducted a survey of stakeholders that found that employers were “sending mixed messages” that a blend of hard and soft skills were still the most highly desirable from business. The confusion lies in that business leaders would often put soft skills at the top of the list while their actions showed that industry-specific skills helped candidates get the job.

Larson encourages the development of courses that “fuse liberal arts and professional skills” combined with experiential learning opportunities that help reinforce the value of these skills. By way of example, she describes a course called “Ethics of Entrepreneurship” which combines critical thinking, writing, and a semester-long project. Another example of fusion is a management course on Interpersonal relations that she says is combined with an English course on women in film that explores how “women are perceived in film and how this can affect management styles.” She indicates that all of this must be combined with an experiential learning opportunity in order to effectively connect the esoteric to hard-skills and that business and industry should be encouraged to play a part in this active-learning.

In yet another essay by Lee Burdette Williams, vice president for student affairs and dean of students at Wheaton College in Massachusetts, the argument is made that personal maturity plays an important role in education. He breaks this down into four overall equations that exemplify his thinking:

1) A marketable (STEM or other professional focused) major + good interpersonal skills = very likely professional success

2) A liberal arts major +  good interpersonal skills = possible professional success

3) A marketable major without interpersonal skills = possible professional success (some skills, he says, are valuable enough to overlook the lack of interpersonal skills)

4) A liberal arts major without interpersonal skills = not much chance of professional success

His advice to many undecided students:

Major in something you enjoy and do it well. (Lee Burdette Williams)

In everything one does as a student, one should do it well. The campus can be “real world” complete with hassles, disappointments, deadlines, consequences, etc. Williams argues that the discussion needs to shift from an “obsession with the obvious value of a liberal arts education and instead focus on the values of personal maturity, accountability, a sense of proportion and perspective.”

There are many more essays in this publication, all of which are worth the read and tackle the topic of critical thinking from a variety of perspectives. Be sure to download and read the entire compilation here.

Two Simultaneous Conversations in Education – Part II – Liberal (and General) Education

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In Part I of Simultaneous Conversations in Education, we offered a brief review of a conversation about what the completion agenda means, the concerns it raises, and how we can make it work for the students we serve. It brought up many questions, none of them easy to answer.

In Part II, we examine a second article, titled Defending Liberal Education: The Essential Questions. Terry O’Banion, President Emeritus for the League for Innovation in The Community College, asks some provocative questions about how we frame the value of liberal arts education. Reminding us that General Education requirements are designed to ensure at least a minimum liberal arts learning experience, he suggests that the issue of “remapping” educational pathways uses language that can often obscure our well-meaning intentions of what Liberal Education can offer. This is especially true if we are to communicate the value of the liberal arts to other stakeholders such as leaders from business and industry, or parents, legislators, students, or even vocational faculty.

O’Banion challenges us to reimagine liberal education in what he called “a series of Essential Questions” which help guide human beings through life experiences. He recognizes that this can be controversial but that it reflects “that which matters the most to us and is stated in a powerful form that makes us begin thinking immediately about our own personal answers.”


 

“The final product of training…’must be neither a psychologist nor a brick mason, but a man.'”

– W.E.B. DuBois


 

The questions he addresses come under five major categories and are not meant to offer answers, but provoke further discussion on the meaning of liberal education. The categories, along with a sampling of the questions are shared below.

  • Personal Development

Who am I? Where am I going? What difference does it make?

  • Economic Development

What are the basic talents and skills I have that can translate into a good career?

What are the rewards for working that are important to me?

What is my dream job? …what kind of educational experiences will it take to get me there?

When I die what do I want my family and friends and coworkers to say about the work I have done?

  • Civic Development

How much do I understand and appreciate being a citizen of a major democracy?

Through what means can I make a difference so that I leave my country better than I found it?

  • Cultural Development

What are my most creative urges and talents that could produce something worth sharing with others? To what extent have I been exercising those urges and talents?

How do I, or can I use art, music, dance, theatre, poetry, etc. to enrich my life? Which of these do I like most and why?

What do human beings around the world old most in common?

  • Social Development

What is my responsibility for my fellow human beings?

What contributions am I making or planning to make to improve my family, friends, school, workplace, etc.?

O’Banion acknowledges that these and other questions posed in the article may not be met with open arms by business and government leaders and that some may question whether these are the responsibility of education at all. That is the challenge he poses to educators, to find ways to reframe the discussion on liberal and general education, making the case for its relevance and importance to educating the next generation of students. He suggests that questions like these might serve as “milestones and indicators of progress along the Student Success Pathway.”

In starting the conversation with these “essential questions,” O’Banion also invites your participation by asking you to send your suggestions for improvement to the categories and questions he shares in the article to: obanion@league.org.

Read the full article here.