Commentary

Tom Sullivan: On the value of a liberal education

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Tom Sullivan, who is the president of the University of Vermont.

Over the last several months, a debate has ensued across higher education on a fundamental question: What should be the responsibility of a college or university in the education of its students? A similar question has been posed: Do Americans expect too much from a college degree? The discussion was sparked by a new book and essay by a former professor at Yale (Deresiewicz) arguing that America’s elite universities are not teaching their students to develop the whole individual, including one’s self and one’s soul. Other leading scholars (Pinker) respond that universities are not particularly equipped to teach personal development or emotional maturity. Other commentators (Bruni) believe that the current discourse has been too narrow or that we should return to a time when education was rooted in moral understandings and purpose (Brooks). Reading these debates, one could quickly come to the conclusion that the discussion to date has been too unbalanced in a way that reminds one that extreme positions are infrequently persuasive and ultimately not very useful for reaching consensus.

The debates, however, bring us back to two central questions: What should be the purpose of a college education and what should it accomplish for the student? As classes began at the University of Vermont this fall, I asked our colleagues at the first meeting of the Faculty Senate to spend this year considering several foundational questions, including what it means to be an educated person; what it means to be educated at UVM; and what it means to hold a degree from the University of Vermont. As the national discussion suggests, many people will have differing views on this important subject, but every great educational institution should engage in asking the right questions and seeking a thoughtful exchange of ideas on these topics.

I hope we can all agree that the purpose of higher education should be to expose the student to thinking broadly and deeply about our collective knowledge and new discoveries while fostering critical and analytical thinking that connects intellectual curiosity and careful reflection. It should offer students both depth and breadth on a broad array of topics that inform and shape a coherent reasoning ability that inspires lifelong learning, maturity, and personal growth and development.

As I have often remarked, a broad liberal education is a very valuable springboard for lifelong learning, understanding, and inquiry. It is a window to asking the important questions of what is the meaning, nature and purpose of life. A well-rounded education opens our eyes and curiosity to the “analytical, empirical, moral, and aesthetic” (Menard) issues that we will confront in our lifetime. A worthwhile education should give students ample opportunity to acquire both broad and deep knowledge in certain fields, incorporating qualitative reasoning and quantitative analysis over a range of ideals, values, including moral dimensions and cultural and religious differences.

The mere learning of information is not enough; there must be an ability to think through the avalanche of facts and information to reach an understanding what the acquired information means across many dimensions, including morals, ethics, and practical application to one’s daily activities and ambitions, including personal growth, maturity, and career aspirations and successes.

 

In a recent conversation with professor emeritus Luther Martin of UVM, he shared with me several examples of the synergy that universities often achieve when integrating qualitative and quantitative learning: fields such as behavioral economics and the cognitive science of religion. As Eric Kendel recently explored in “The Age of Insight” (2012), “intersections of psychology, neuroscience and art” reveal “the human mind in all of its richness and diversity.”

A rigorous experience should encourage and teach students how to write and speak clearly and persuasively, a set of skills that often have been decried as lacking in the present generation of students. These skills cannot be developed and sharpened unless there is fundamental knowledge and critical, analytical thinking beneath the expression. It is often said that in today’s technologically-connected world we are flooded with information, but we are left with very little understanding of the nuances or complexities around us. The mere learning of information is not enough; there must be an ability to think through the avalanche of facts and information to reach an understanding what the acquired information means across many dimensions, including morals, ethics, and practical application to one’s daily activities and ambitions, including personal growth, maturity, and career aspirations and successes.

At the University of Vermont, our faculty over a course of years has developed six learning outcomes within its general education criteria. These learning outcomes are 1) communication, writing, and information literacy; 2) quantitative reasoning; 3) science, systems, and sustainability; 4) cultures, diversity, and global perspectives; 5) integrating and the application of knowledge; and 6) art, aesthetic and design. These carefully considered learning outcomes, I believe, address almost all of the issues contained in the debate about the purpose of an education and the responsibility of our universities.

They also are complementary to important developmental outcomes that we seek for our students before graduation. The mission statement of UVM is clear on this point; it captures the essence of the university and the meaning of an engaged educational experience: “To create, evaluate, share, and apply knowledge and to prepare students to be accountable leaders who will bring to their work dedication to the global community, a grasp of complexity, effective problem-solving and communication skills, and an enduring commitment to learning and ethical conduct.”

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  • Holly Tippett

    While I agree with nearly everything in President Sullivan’s opinion piece, I believe that colleges and universities have an additional responsibility to their students (and parents of students). Its a responsibility that most educational institutions shirk. And its probably because it is the least “sexy”part of post secondary education—career education. It’s disappointing when colleges and universities graduate young people who cant find a job, don’t have professional connections and don’t know where to begin. And, its tough on the economy both within families and nationally to be in debt and not have any strong job prospects. Institutions are the best place to provide career information because of their connections to a broad range of economic sectors and industries; their alumni networks and their infrastructure resources. Perhaps colleges and universities would consider requiring internships and/or apprenticeships in students’ field of study prior to graduation. The benefits would be significant for all involved and the schools and professors themselves would gain from those connections as well.

    • Paul Richards

      “It’s disappointing when colleges and universities graduate young people who cant find a job, don’t have professional connections and don’t know where to begin. ”
      This is what you have in the fundamentally transformed America that obama has fostered. This is the “new economy” that he has enlightened us to. Like he said; the economy is improving but the problem is that we just don’t know it. Hmm, improving for who and what is the measure of improvement? We are not to prosper as a society as we have in the past. We have been taking more of our fair share and it is time now for obama to set it all straight. Through the UN and initiatives like “global warming” (or whatever they are calling it today), obamacare and executive amnesty we are being set up to have our opportunities and real freedoms taken away from us and given to others in certain chosen factions of our society and around the world. By design, this has to result in fewer jobs and overall opportunities for anyone in this country to experience economic freedom.
      Get used to it, “it’s just the way it is”.

  • timothy price

    It is difficult to define what colleges might teach in a society where the media spews out only propaganda for the corporate government, for the disease care industries, and is only concerned with getting workers into the debt-slave position for life. A little objective truth telling would be great.. but perhaps we need a more fundamental change in our society to get it. Fiat currency collapse might help.

  • rosemarie jackowski

    What does it say about the critical thinking skills of a student body that is silent when the Chief administrator is paid $447,000 per year? Economic justice?

    http://www.mndaily.com/2012/02/22/sullivan-named-university-vermont-president

    • J. Scott Cameron

      Your question, Ms. Jackowski, evokes the old adage: A fool knows the cost of everything but the value of nothing.

  • paul lutz

    President Sullivan wrote “I hope we can all agree that the purpose of higher education should be to expose the student to thinking broadly and deeply about our collective knowledge and new discoveries while fostering critical and analytical thinking that connects intellectual curiosity and careful reflection.”

    How is exposure to all sides of an issue accomplished on a very liberal campus in a setting where conservative thoughts and ideas are discouraged??

  • My liberal education wonders why there is not a popular revolution against the CEO cult that overpays the out-of-state power elite while relying on cheap adjunct faculty but whose over-administration expenses, overbuilding, etc are making the cost of what’s supposed to be the state agricultural school unaffordable to those who need it most. And why is it that all men think bigger is better?

  • Ann Kehoe

    “I hope we can all agree that the purpose of higher education should be to expose the student to thinking broadly and deeply about our collective knowledge …” Isn’t that impossible when no one teaches ‘collective knowledge’ and therefore no one is passing on a body of accepted histories and culture? Every group has its own values and “knowledge” and not much else is ‘shared’? Does the word, “Balkanize” mean anything?