Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A liberal education for every student

Education, therefore, is a process of living and not a preparation for future living.
--John Dewey, "My Pedagogic Creed"

Liberal Education is an approach to learning that empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change. It provides students with broad knowledge of the wider world (e.g. science, culture, and society) as well as in-depth study in a specific area of interest. A liberal education helps students develop a sense of social responsibility, as well as strong and transferable intellectual and practical skills such as communication, analytical and problem-solving skills, and a demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings. ...Today, a liberal education usually includes a general education curriculum that provides broad learning in multiple disciplines and ways of knowing, along with more in-depth study in a major.

--American Association of Colleges and Universities, "What is Liberal Education?"

It is long past time to do away with sloganeering about the primary purpose of education being to "prepare our kids for 21st-century jobs."

This cliché, and others like it, contributes to a narrative that cheapens the work of educators and shrinks the province of education to something that is done purely "in preparation" for something more "real," more substantial or meaningful - i.e., a job. But it is a colossal mistake to think and speak about K-16 education as though it were nothing more than extended job-training.

If we give students a liberal education aimed at educating their whole selves, building their foundational and critical literacy, increasing their access to and understanding of the world of ideas and art, and helping them develop their ability to understand and think about complex issues in and across academic disciplines, then we will have given them the best "vocational" education possible: students with excellent verbal and quantitative skills have the economic and social worlds wide open to them. They gain access to coveted internships and jobs, opportunities for studying and working overseas, and a stronger political voice.

Education - and therefore schooling, which is institutionalized education - is first and foremost about the pursuit of understanding. It is not about job-training. Job-training happens primarily on the job - but to give students access to rewarding and fulfilling work, and to prepare them to have as wide a choice of work as possible, the best preparation is a strong liberal education.