November’s presidential election is imminent and its approach provides an opportunity to explore higher education’s role in producing informed citizens.
A great place to begin the discussion is with the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) initiative called LEAP or Liberal Education and America’s Promise. LEAP is national in scope and includes learning objectives for liberal arts graduates. These objectives match very nicely with characteristics employers desire in new hires, placing liberal arts graduates in high demand, but, for our present purposes, it’s fascinating to see how they align with discussions in the presidential campaign.
There are 16 LEAP objectives in three broad categories: intellectual and practical skills; personal and social responsibility; and integrative and applied learning. Let me reference just a few of those objectives in the context of the presidential campaign’s main issues.
On the domestic front, one could argue that the three most pressing issues are the state of race relations in America, the magnitude of income inequality, and the health of the economy. If students graduate proficient in the learning objectives entitled intercultural knowledge and competence, ethical reasoning, and quantitative literacy, think how well positioned they’d be to evaluate claims and proposed solutions for these pressing problems.
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When citizens can envision themselves in the roles of others whose lives are very different from their own, the quality of the discussion improves dramatically. Similarly, when ethical considerations play a role in decision-making rather than just self-interest, the quality of the discussion also improves dramatically. Finally, when citizens can assess statistics for themselves, rather than relying on inflated claims often provided by politicians, they become far less gullible.
On the international front, we have to deal with the twin issues of terrorism and refugees, threats imposed by climate change, and challenges associated with working with other governments. Imagine an electorate composed of individuals fully proficient in the LEAP objectives entitled global learning, critical thinking, and problem solving. Politicians’ simplistic assertions about these complex problems, assertions not grounded either in data or cultural competence, wouldn’t be accepted by such an electorate.
Throw in learning associated with LEAP objectives called civic engagement, integrative learning, teamwork, and creative thinking and we might well have a dramatically different and for more engaging political season.
It’s well worth noting that none of the LEAP learning objectives tell students what to think. Rather they help teach students how to think. Meaningful education, after all, is very different from indoctrination.
The citizens of Washington are fortunate to have a diversity of higher education options, both public and private, two- and four-year. Many such institutions have come together to form the Washington Consortium for the Liberal Arts to promote the values of liberal education and AAC&U’s learning objectives. Together we’re working to educate Washington’s next generation of leaders and voters.
Michael Zimmerman is the vice president for academic affairs at The Evergreen State College. He is the executive director of the Washington Consortium for the Liberal Arts.