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Fluency Across the Boundaries: A Case for Liberal Education in the 21st Century


Ronald A. Crutcher


As the first person in my immediate family to complete a college degree, I am well aware of how fortunate I was to have been mentored into the experience of a liberal education. My mentor was Professor Elizabeth Potteiger at Miami University, who heard me perform a Bach Suite in a competition on her campus. I had been playing the cello for only eight months at that point, and this chance encounter resulted in my studying cello with her at the age of 14. Subsequently, I received one of the first alumni merit scholarships to attend Miami as an undergraduate student. The liberal education foundation I received there made possible, and enriched, so many of the experiences I have had in my life as an educator, musician, leader, husband, father, and friend. As a result, my lifelong passion has been to ensure that colleges provide an engaging educational culture—with a liberal education core—in which all students can thrive.

We have a long way to go. The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) notes in its Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) report titled College Learning for the New Global Century, that there is an evolving consensus that the most valuable type of undergraduate education builds intellectual and practical skills, and also inculcates in students the importance of connecting knowledge across disciplinary boundaries. This approach creates agile thinkers capable of adapting and thriving in a fast-paced and complex global economy. And yet, “it is the nation’s first-generation and less advantaged students . . . who are the most likely to enroll in institutions and programs that provide narrow training.”1 According to a 2005 study by the National Center for Education Statistics, first-generation students are less likely than others to take courses in the humanities, foreign languages, the arts, or even computer science and other STEM subjects. These are, of course, the very kinds of courses necessary to achieve the essential learning outcomes (see page 20) described in the LEAP report.

Public policy makers, politicians, and to some extent the public have become increasingly critical of higher education, especially during the past ten years. Arguably, the tenor of the conversation parallels the highly charged health care debates of the 1990s. The appointment of the Commission on Higher Education by President George W. Bush marked a significant turning point in the conversation. The commission was charged with making recommendations to improve higher education in four areas: access, affordability, accountability, and completion. Ironically, there was very little discussion about the content of the higher education learning experience during the commission’s deliberations. In other words, there was no attempt to answer the question: Access for what kind of education?
To the extent that access, affordability, accountability, and completion have remained high priorities, the Obama administration has continued the conversation about postsecondary education. In fact, the president has stated that the United States should be once again the world leader in the number of citizens receiving college degrees by 2020. This is an extremely ambitious goal. Much of the conversation about how this can be achieved has centered on economic competitiveness (the acquisition of job-related skills) and the STEM disciplines as important components of a college education (the “what kind of education” question). In a competitive global economy—in which the U.S. Department of Labor estimates that learners will have held 10 to 14 jobs by the age of 38—college graduates need to be flexible learners with the ability not only to think critically but also to synthesize and connect content from one discipline to another. Clearly, this cannot be achieved through narrow training for a particular job. As former Secretary of Education Richard Riley memorably put it, “We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist, using technologies that haven’t been invented, in order to solve problems that we don’t even know are problems yet.” The top ten in-demand jobs in 2010 did not even exist in 2004.2

In my opinion, the best possible preparation to meet the challenges of the 21st century is a liberal education. Given the rapid pace and complexity of change in today’s global economy, college graduates need to be agile learners. They need to develop capacities that will guide them in clarifying and adapting to developments in an ever-changing world. A foundational education in the liberal arts and sciences—followed by integration of the skills and knowledge developed within students’ majors—will provide the educational experiences and intellectual rigor needed to help students hone these essential capacities.
Making the Case for Liberal Education
When I speak of a liberal education, I am not referring solely to liberal arts institutions. Rather, I am referring to the liberal education that students in nearly all American colleges and universities receive through their general education programs, irrespective of their area of concentration. In 2005, AAC&U embarked on the LEAP advocacy initiative, the primary purpose of which was to build stronger public understanding of and support for a liberal education. It was developed through dialogue with academic and other national leaders, including business leaders.
As part of this initiative, AAC&U has been engaged in conversations with employers about what matters most in a contemporary college education. Interestingly, employers and business leaders across the United States see the connections between liberal education and the demands of the new global economy. When queried in focus groups and surveys about the qualities they seek in new hires, employers overwhelmingly reported effective writing and communication skills; analytical and problem-solving skills; the capacity to create connections across disciplinary, organizational, and cross-cultural boundaries; and the ability to work effectively in diverse groups—precisely the qualities that students receive from a liberal education. Students begin to build these capacities in their general education programs, but then hone them at much higher levels within the context of their own major fields. And these outcomes are just as important to those in professional fields as they are to those who might choose to major in a traditional arts and sciences field.
AAC&U developed a set of Essential Learning Outcomes for all college and university students as part of the LEAP initiative. Colleges and universities can use these outcomes as a framework for developing their liberal education or general education core curriculum.
1. Acquire broad knowledge of human cultures and the physical and natural world. This represents the traditional idea of the liberal arts, emphasizing broad study of ideas from the sciences and mathematics, social sciences, humanities, histories, languages, and the arts. Such knowledge is focused by engagement with big questions, both contemporary and enduring.
2. Develop intellectual and practical skills. Traditionally, a college education aimed to develop students’ ability to think critically and creatively, communicate effectively, research and learn new information, understand and produce quantitative information, and assess the validity of information. However, greater success at inculcating these skills can be achieved when study across the curriculum is designed to build these skills intentionally—across both general education and majors.
3. Encourage personal and social responsibility. Critics of higher education cite language of this type in critiquing the academy as a political organization. This misses the point. The goal here is not to promote a political perspective. Rather, the critical element is encouraging civic engagement in local and global communities and in reasoned, ethical behavior.
4. Integrate and apply learning. Ultimately, students’ success, and higher education’s success, will be determined by whether the skills and knowledge acquired through undergraduate study can be connected and applied to complex problems beyond the classroom, whether in professional life, civic practice, or the personal sphere.
With the LEAP initiative, AAC&U has set out to champion the importance of a 21st century liberal education—for individual students and for a nation dependent on economic creativity and democratic vitality. LEAP challenges the traditional practice of providing liberal education to some students and narrow training to others. It engages the public with core questions about what really matters in college; connects employers and educational leaders as they make the case for the importance of liberal education in the global economy and in our diverse democracy; and helps all students achieve the essential learning outcomes. Through LEAP, AAC&U calls on the United States to “make excellence inclusive” so that all students receive the best and most powerful preparation for work, life, and citizenship at a time when the president would like to see 8 million more Americans obtain a bachelor’s degree by 2020—less than ten years away.
The World as It Really Is
While the results of employer surveys are significant, they are not the primary rationale for the development of the Essential Learning Outcomes. A more compelling reason relates to the role of liberal education in the development of civic capacity in our students. A liberal education by design builds both capacity (rich knowledge, high-level skills, social imagination) and commitment (an examined sense of ethical and civic responsibility) to create and test responsible solutions—and to learn with and from others, not just ourselves. The Essential Learning Outcomes as outlined above provide ample opportunity for students to hone these skills.
Many academics would recite the intellectual benefits of a liberal education—that is, learning for the sake of learning—as its most significant benefit. While I don’t want to give short shrift to these important benefits, I am also pragmatic enough to know that the public, politicians, and policy makers are more likely to be swayed by other arguments that they deem more “practical.”
More than ever before, our country (indeed, our world) now needs educated citizens with insights that can come only from a firm grounding in intellectual thought combined with knowledge that is broad, deep, and linked to a sense of personal and social responsibility. In his book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, E.O. Wilson makes a clear point about linking intellectual thought and knowledge with personal and social responsibility: “Most of the issues that vex humanity daily—ethnic conflict, arms escalation, overpopulation, abortion, environment, endemic poverty, to cite several most consistently before us—cannot be solved without integrating knowledge from the natural sciences with that of the social sciences and humanities.”
Wilson continued: “Only fluency across the boundaries will provide a clear view of the world as it really is, not as seen through the lens of ideologies and religious dogmas or commanded by myopic response to immediate need.”
The capacity to link intellectual thought with social responsibility is fundamental to a democratic society. These qualities, together with the ability to clarify and adapt to developments in an ever-changing world, are the hallmarks of a liberal education. For the future viability of our nation and the world, this is the kind of educational experience we should provide for all of our students.


Ronald A. Crutcher is president of Wheaton College and co-chair of the Leadership Council for Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP). He was an ACE Fellows Program Mentor in 2001-02, and a Nominator in 2004-05, 2007-08, and 2010-11.

1. Liberal Education and America’s Promise. (2007). College learning for the new global century, p. 24. Washington, DC : Association of American Colleges & Universities.
2. “Did You Know? 2.0” from