Monday, February 14, 2011

Toward a More Viable Democracy

My reflective practitioner post prompted a few responses that have added insight and resources toward the importance of liberal arts and general education as well. I’ll try to weave the feedback and resources received into a coherent post. General education is often referred to as “the basics” – reading, writing, and math. With the world changing so dramatically all around, the basics are being recast into critical thinking, communicating, and problem solving (in a more applied use of the original basics). Trends show general education moving in the direction of students learning these skills in the context of interdisciplinary themes like sustainability, citizenship, and entrepreneurship. These ideas are arising in conversations, think tanks, and thought pieces. Unfortunately, they fail to surface much at all in uninformed or narrow-minded policy discussions and isolated campus cultures – and the timing couldn’t be worse.

A talented, well-informed, member of the adjunct faculty at MVCC sent me a wonderful resource on TED – a fantastic resource. It’s a fascinating and enlightening speech (18 minutes long) from the President of Bennington College, Dr. Liz Coleman, sharing the underpinnings of why and how that college reinvented general education. She issues a call to action to change general education in our colleges to help change our country and our world for the better. As she says, “it’s not about good and evil, but finding solutions between competing ideas.” In light of the challenges we face, general education in this country needs to be comprised of mutually dependent circles rather than isolated triangles. It should have a new set of categories:
1. rhetoric - organizing the world of words
2. design - organizing the world of things
3. mediation & improvisation – assuming a special place in the new order
4. quantitative reasoning – managing change through measurement
5. technology - making connections
Dr. Coleman then turns the entire focus of general education toward acting on the critical issues of our day and the success of our collective future. As she closes, “We cannot have a viable democracy made up of zealots, experts, politicians, and spectators." Amen. http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/liz_coleman_s_call_to_reinvent_liberal_arts_education.html

The higher education and secondary sectors of our educational system are not very well aligned. We can’t simply continue saying “look how many students aren’t prepared for college.” We need to be part of the solution. The Race to the Top initiative addresses more root cause issues in primary and secondary education than No Child Left Behind did. However, it “races” over too many variables like English as a Second Language and other barriers associated with fair standardized testing practices in our schools. It has also shed a bright light on the performance, or lack thereof, in our school systems. It is too easy and even disingenuous for colleges and universities to simply say, “send us better students.” As the SUNY Chancellor says, “this is our problem too – we train the teachers.” Additionally, most every report or research study that looks at college student learning in the aggregate, particularly in general education areas, demonstrates limited achievement. http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2011/01/18/study_finds_large_numbers_of_college_students_don_t_learn_much. With the price of college today, we need to be as at least as accountable as our secondary schools.

We need to be part of the solution. We need to embrace those studies that show setting high standards for students and delivering content in engaging and applied ways, along with effective support systems and resources, most often causes students rise to those high standards. Simply “raising the bar” and telling the students to get there without changing our delivery or our support systems does more harm than good. Reconsidering and reinventing “the basics” of general education needs to include a deep curricular connection to our secondary school partners to align curriculum, expectations, and outcomes for increased relevance, learning, and consequence of the student experience.

If you have any thoughts on this post, please contact me at presblog@mvcc.edu.