A big box arrived at my office last summer. It was from AGLS Past President Larry Kaptain, and it was full of back issues of Perspectives, the former journal of the AGLS. The oldest one inside dated to the summer of 1987, and that’s the one that most intrigued me because I graduated from college that summer. Wondering what the issues were in general and liberal studies at that time, when I had just joined the ranks of “liberally educated people,” I opened the volume eagerly.
The full conference schedule for AGLS greeted my eyes, and a couple of familiar themes leaped off the pages. Several sessions pointed to a raging debate: should we be teaching the western tradition or non-western, multicultural content? Another set of sessions argued for a feminist approach to liberal education, for transcending racial boundaries, and for the role of general and liberal studies at HBCUs. A third group of sessions explored the way Gen Ed programs were preparing students for the 1980s workforce: one was based on interviews with alumni, for example, while another concentrated on the experiences of non-traditional students, and another addressed the question, what can one do with a humanities degree? There was even one lonely session on assessment.
On the surface, it may seem like we haven't advanced very much from the 1980s. We have old wine in new bottles, perhaps. As a historian, I thought of George Santayana’s famous 1905 aphorism, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Is that the case for us in general and liberal studies—or in higher education, broadly? Have we forgotten some important lesson?
The first essay in the volume offered me an answer. Titled, “Liberal Arts, Teaching and Critical Literacy: Toward a Definition of Schooling as a Form of Cultural Politics,” the AGLS published it in advance of the conference so all could read it and discuss at a plenary. The author, Henry Giroux, is now hailed as one of the top educational thinkers in the modern world, a John Dewey for our time, and I can't do justice to the entire essay here. For my purposes, suffice it to say, he noted that the meaning of any education has to be made and remade for each generation, over and over. I was reminded of a colleague’s frequent and wry observation that we faculty get older, while our students remain perpetually aged 18-22. We have to remember that: no matter how much WE grow in experience and wisdom, THEY are pretty much always inexperienced, naive, and young.
So it would be easy to look at that 1987 conference and the debates and challenges it reflected and throw in the towel, to say well, we've tried before, we can't do it. But I’m not at all cynical about the similarities between then and now. I wasn't even that shocked, in fact. From 1987 to 2014 is only 27 years. It’s not long at all if you study the human past. It’s barely a blip. We all know that important changes sometimes happen slowly, over decades or centuries.
In fact, significant changes have happened in general and liberal studies since 1987. The 54th Annual AGLS conference in Atlanta featured sessions on the globalization or internationalization of curricula, for example, a much more sophisticated concern than the old western vs. non-western debate. Similarly, topics about diversity, inclusivity, and privilege have broadened and deepened older discussions about race, gender, and class. Meanwhile, questions about non-traditional students have given way to access, swirling, degree completion, and high impact practices. True, we still worry about preparing students for the workplace, but I have to think that's largely because the workplace has also changed. As Terrel Rhodes of the AAC&U showed us in his fine keynote presentation, the average American with a bachelor’s degree is expected to hold 10-14 different jobs by time she reaches 40.
My point is, don't feel discouraged if the pace of progress feels slow or if it seems like Groundhog Day, especially if you have been doing general and liberal studies “work” for a long time. I haven't been doing it all that long, myself. I only crossed over to the dark side of administration ten years ago. But I have been living and breathing general education every day since then. To the class of 2018, by contrast, the concept of general education, let alone the ideal of a liberal education, is largely unknown. This fall, my campus welcomed 4,360-some freshmen. The number of Americans seeking a degree has gone up dramatically, and the number of international students coming here to acquire an American degree is also rising. All of them need our help to make meaning of their liberal educations as a whole—and of their general educations in particular. And so will members of the class of 2019 and 2020 and on and on and on. As Giroux said, “liberal education is a way of life that has to be fought for.” That's why the AGLS came into being in 1961, why it still exists today, and why it will still be here twenty years from now.
In short term, I look forward to seeing you in Milwaukee in 2015!
Margaret M. (Meg) Mulrooney