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 execdir@agls.org to find out how to share your ponderings.

Why Join AGLS?

Joyce Lucke - Thursday, April 09, 2015

Why join AGLS?
Michael J. Kolb, Metropolitan State University of Denver

In an early 20th century response to Thomas Edison's statement that attending college is a useless endeavor, Albert Einstein replied that “the value of an education in a liberal arts college is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks.”

Yet, almost 100 years later, with college costs on the rise and most institutions of higher education employing a market model increasingly defined by the narrower needs of the today’s economy, the liberal studies are being squeezed out of the curriculum. Consequently, a liberal studies education is becoming less accessible, even threatening to widen the gap between the affluent members of society and those of lesser privilege or opportunity.

In 2013, after intense stints as a faculty member, general education coordinator, and administrator, I attended my first conference of the Association of General and Liberal Studies. This event was no accident; in fact it seemed to be a destined rendezvous along my professional journey of becoming the most effective professor I could possibly be.

As an educator who has been faced with straddling the differing pedagogies of the 20th and 21st centuries, I have always experienced some discomfort about following the age-old industrial era formula of bifurcating major and general studies, employing the rigidity of the lecture-based classroom, and using the credit hour to measure performance.

This discomfort, coupled with the facts that most of today’s 1.8 million 2015 graduates will be under employed and incur enough student-loan debt to inhibit financial independence until they are 30, inspired me to seek solutions that I could effectively practice as a mid-level administrator and a public intellectual in higher education.  The term “public intellectual” is important, and I will return to it shortly.

As I sought to locate information about effectual practices in higher education, I began attending a variety of conferences sponsored by such notable organizations such as the American Association of Colleges and Universities and the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities.  As a result of this quest I gathered an incredible amount of information!  I learned about pedagogy, administrative practices, and policies; this knowledge allowed me to see the bigger picture, which, over time, helped me to nudge my institution towards substantive 21st century educational change.

Soon thereafter, however, I found myself still wanting as I still viewed myself as an intellectual practitioner rather than an academic. The difference between the two is salient: an academic seeks an audience comprised of other academics; an intellectual seeks a broader audience of academics, students, and the educated public. While the afore-mentioned organizations provide immeasurable service to academe, their audience was mostly geared towards administrative practice as well as public policy. I was more interested in engaging with similar minded intellectuals who knew about “nuts and bolts” of changing: those who were affecting change “in the trenches” and expressing their convictions through practice.

This brings me back to the Association of General and Liberal Studies. I attended my first AGLS conference in Indianapolis in 2013, bearing the burden of how to begin general education reform at a large state institution in Indiana with a program that had not changed in 40 years. There I met fellow intellectuals – directors, coordinators, and faculty members – who felt as passionate as I did, who were not only willing to listen and offer practical advice, but who could demonstrate what they accomplished. 

After the conference, I felt transformed.  I finally discovered a group of colleagues who could help me map out the specific steps I needed to affect significant change.  And with the tools I learned, I was able to more effectively communicate the need for reform at my own institution. I also feel confident that I can do my part to assure the success and longevity of liberal studies and intellectualism through the 21st century.

Higher education is at a crossroads as it fully enters the 21st century. We must serve a remarkably diverse study body in terms of age and background, and we must try to best meet their varied needs and aspirations as well as the requirements of today's economy. But we must also do our best to provide intellectual training in liberal studies. Albert Einstein said it best almost a century ago: “intellectuals solve problems.”