Gen Ed on My Mind

AGLS will invite a series of association officers, members and guests to write short essays on current general education issues and matters of the day. Our aim is to have a new essay every 6 weeks. Past essays will be archived online for a year, then in association offices. Have something on your mind? Contact us at to find out how to share your ponderings.

Restoring General Education's Civic Purpose

Joyce Lucke - Thursday, November 22, 2018
William McKinney (Indiana University)
AGLS Council Member
American Deomocracy Project, Chair Elect, Steering Committee

(Blogger’s note: what follows is excerpted from my keynote address at the 2017 AGLS Conference, held in September in Memphis, TN.)

In so many ways, I am thrilled to be back in Memphis, back at AGLS. Twenty-four years ago, right here in Memphis, I attended my first AGLS meeting. In 1993, I was a new tenure track assistant professor of philosophy at Southeast Missouri State University. The Internet was primarily a tool used by researchers to share information. Email was not yet a necessity. In my home department, for instance, we did not yet have our own desktop computers. Instead, we had one central terminal onto which we could log, check email, and communicate quickly with colleagues.

Fast forward 24 years. Here I am. Back in Memphis. Back at AGLS. I have been a department chair, a dean, a provost, and a president. I now direct policy and strategy for the five regional campuses of Indiana University, and I serve on the AGLS Council. I am older, presumably wiser, with a significantly greyer beard and less hair!

Justifiably, you might be asking, “Why are you here, Bill?” While I have been fortunate enough to have many fulfilling roles in my career, I never wavered in my advocacy for liberal education and its civic purpose. That is why I joined the AGLS Council. That is why I am here.

While my advocacy has not changed, much else has changed in these 24 years. The Internet is now a way of life, and the phones that we all carry with us are less telephones and more Internet access devices with significantly more computing power than that old VT terminal that I shared with my colleagues in 1993. Electronic communication is a necessity for everyone, not just the researcher. We have witnessed the rise of social media and, in the last several years, its use as a political weapon.

Why am I here? I am here for the same reasons that I hope you are:  to advocate for the value of general and liberal studies, and to promote their civic purpose. That is why I was so honored to join the AGLS Council, almost a quarter century after my first AGLS meeting.

On August 16, 2017, in a widely-cited Gallup Organization opinion piece, Brandon Busteed tells us that the term “liberal arts” is a branding disaster and a cause of conservative backlash against higher education.

Here is the Busteed argument.
  1. The word “liberal” is “politically charged” and the word “arts” carries with it “negative connotations.”
  2. Many students and their parents, especially those among first-generation and economically disadvantaged groups, cannot relate to the term “liberal arts.”
  3. Liberal arts skills are valuable and valued, but the term “liberal arts” is both dated and politically charged. It does nothing to support that value and instead, erodes public support for, and confidence in, higher education.
  4. Therefore, to save public support for higher education, we must rebrand the liberal arts.
Busteed cites a recent Pew study that shows only one-third of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents have confidence in higher education, as opposed to 56% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents. The major reason for such skepticism among 66% of Republicans is their perception that our campuses are too liberal, stifle free expression, and teach irrelevant subjects. From these data, Busteed concludes that the word “liberal” is “politically charged” and that the word “arts” carries with it “negative connotations.”

OK, I get it. In the vernacular, the word “liberal” is political. Point granted.

That the arts are somehow negative requires a bit more unpacking. Could it be that Mr. Busteed is suggesting, as have many a budget-cutting politician, that the arts are somehow a luxury? One of those unnecessary courses cited by Republicans and by some Democrats? A commodity to be consumed by those who can afford them, rather than a necessity of the human experience? We are not told, but the implication is rather clear.

Busteed then argues that the liberal arts are misunderstood, adding to the public’s skepticism. Citing surveys by Hoxby and Turner, we find that parents of 7th to 12th graders would choose no college at all over a liberal arts education, but would prefer an education stressing 21st Century skills. The catch is that “21st Century skills” was used as simply a different name for the same package of skills described in the liberal arts education that they did not like.

There is something in the name; there is widespread misunderstanding of the term “liberal arts,” and that misunderstanding is eroding public support for higher education.

So, should we lose the term “liberal arts?” Should we become The Association for 21st Century Skills Education?

Busteed tells us to rebrand, but keep the values of the liberal arts education.

Imagine the pitch: Same useful skills, bold new packaging!

We are advised to do what Kentucky Fried Chicken and other foods have done. When was the last time you saw an ad for Kentucky Fried Chicken? They rebranded to KFC in 1991, deemphasizing the fact that fried chicken is in fact fried! From 1952-1983, Tony the Tiger peddled Kellogg’s Sugar Frosted Flakes. Ever since, he has extolled the greatness of Frosted Flakes, as if we would forget that frosting is almost entirely made of sugar.
Should we do the same? 

I say that we should not, but that we must nonetheless heed Busteed’s warning that we are losing the public’s trust. I say this for two reasons.

First, to say that changing the label but keeping the outcomes somehow saves what we all value in the liberal arts is counter to what many of us understand about labels. In my 24 years of promoting and defending the liberal arts, I have come to appreciate the ancient trivium.  As a philosopher, my tendency is typically to look to logic, but for 18 of these 24 years I have been fortunate enough to be married to an extraordinarily gifted and insightful rhetorician (and they say that philosophers and rhetoricians can’t get along!). While I am grateful to my spouse, Dr. Dacia Charlesworth, for so many things, one of those is learning from her the persuasive power of names and symbols, and that which they represent. The naming of any object denotes a power over that object. In the Old Testament, when Adam names the creatures in the garden, he exerts God-given power over them. In modern terms, the science of taxonomy has always carried with it the kind of prioritizing power that naming and categorizing brings.

Names matter.

Secondly, to change the term “liberal arts” to “21st Century skills,” as Busteed suggests, would place a temporal limit on the liberal arts, placing them statically in time and deemphasizing that they are and should always be the arts of free persons. Freedom from ignorance, freedom from fear, and freedom from the demagogues who would take advantage of both should transcend time.

While I may not agree with Busteed’s suggested rebranding, I cannot quarrel with his observations. Significant percentages of the public have lost confidence in us and remain skeptical of our value. Yet, the roots of that skepticism go much deeper than even Busteed describes. As Bankowski and Mims document in “Starving the Beast,” we have witnessed a dramatic shift in how this nation views higher education. Once viewed a public good, higher education is now seen more as a commodity, a private good to be purchased by the individual consumer, for that consumer’s benefit.

We will not change that. Higher education is a multi-billion-dollar enterprise. Students have every right to expect value; every right to expect an education that does, interestingly, what John Adams said that education should do:  teach one how to earn a living and teach one how to live. So, in this context, what is our role? I maintain that it is advocacy, not only for individual goods, but for our public good as well.

Not surprisingly, our public purpose has its roots in antiquity. 

The ancient Greek rhetorician Isocrates established the first formal school of rhetoric somewhere between 392-390 BCE. In that school, he established the basis of a liberal education, stressing the importance of oratory, composition, history, citizenship, and ethics. The purpose of this curriculum was to educate leaders and good citizens. It was an education to serve the greater good of the Athenian city-state.

We are, in essence, Isocrates’ heirs. How, then, do we recommit to our civic purpose?

Socrates, in what to this day is my favorite question for all educational assessment, focuses on the education of the person when he, skeptically, asks Protagoras how his student will be better-off having spent one day in his tutelage.

Ask the Socratic question, more broadly, to ourselves:  Is American society better off in the presence of our programs? Does general and liberal education benefit our democracy? Is American society better off with us?

Many of you attend AAC&U meetings. So do I. One of the most powerful welcome speeches I ever heard came at the January 2006 meeting in New Orleans, five months after Katrina. In a large ballroom in one of the few hotels untouched by the hurricane, the message was clear:  We have done a good job identifying the good that we do for individual students. What we need to demonstrate, however, is the good that we do for society. In the midst of that devastated city, we all knew that we had more work to do.

So now, 11 years after Katrina and in wake of:
  • Charlottesville
  • Harvey/Irma/Maria/Western Wildfires
  • The New Propaganda:  Alternative Facts and Fake News
  • Digital Polarization
We still have work to do.

How do we contribute to improving our society? How do we strengthen our democracy?  How do we demonstrate that we do so, other than by simply claiming it as an article of faith? Effective advocates should be able to answer these questions, and I challenge us as an organization to do just that.

If we do not begin to answer these questions and consequently better communicate our civic purpose and public good, skepticism about our value will remain and strengthen. The world, however, will change around us. 24 years ago, who could have predicted what we see today in technology, in communication, in media, in the state of American civic life?

If we lose this opportunity, general and liberal studies will be continually marginalized; continually regarded as “less than;” and ultimately be regarded as an educational luxury rather than a necessity.

And it will be our fault.

I strongly suggest that our innovations be guided by a recommitment to our civic purpose. The work that we do for our students is so important. It is now time that we advocate for our value to all citizens.
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