Liberal Education and Effective Practice

Clark Perspectives, Articles and Commissioned Papers

Clark Perspectives and Remarks on Liberal Education

Working Paper #1Liberal Education & Effective Practice, Clark LEEP Working Paper #1
Nancy Budwig, Davis Baird and Walter Wright




President Angel blogs about the issues affecting higher education in a regular feature on the HuffPost College page »

President David Angel discusses the challenges of liberal education in the 21st century
As the new president of Clark University, a small, private research university in the Northeast, I find that the challenges we issue to our students on a daily basis are now being reflected back to us; challenges that face many colleges and universities, large or small, public or private. What are we going to do to ensure that the liberal education we provide will equip our students with the necessary capacities to pursue purposeful lives and successful careers in an uncertain political and economic climate?

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    • We must determine how a liberal education will be an enduring touchstone for these young adults, leading them toward lives of consequence, passion, and accomplishment, and how our colleges and universities will be places that cultivate change-makers who will address society's most pressing concerns.

      To do that, we must first acknowledge some level of public skepticism about the value of a liberal education, and the difficulty in shedding some of the more persistent complaints. Misperceptions that a liberal education doesn't prepare a student for a career or that it isn't worth the money have only intensified during this recession.

      The proper rebuttal is that liberal education has never been more important, and is changing in response to the changing world around it. Today's educators must be committed to providing liberal education that is more thorough in its presentation and nimbler in its execution. The world our students are stepping into demands graduates who, put in the simplest terms, can both think and do at the highest levels—in the evolving universe of liberal education there is no longer room for either/or.

      Clark knows the challenges that lie ahead. The speakers' offerings on the day of my inauguration as president illustrated the breadth of the Clark experience—from the achievements of the university's past to the potential for its future. We are proud of our modestly sized (2,203 undergraduates; 964 graduate students) yet substantial research university nestled in the urban core of Worcester, Massachusetts, where I began as a geography professor in 1987. Our motto is "Challenge Convention. Change Our World," five words we use as a guidepost for everything we do, from our efforts to bring life-changing educational opportunities to local children through the University Park Campus School we operate in tandem with the city, to the groundbreaking research by our professors, to our global outreach in countries like Haiti, Sierra Leone, and the Sudan.

      Now, we've got to do even better.

      At Clark now and over the coming decade we are putting into place the Liberal Education and Effective Practice (LEEP) model that combines the benefits of liberal education with a broader set of capacities that powerfully and distinctly enable students to pursue their passion with purpose. Our students must emerge not just as university graduates, but as thought leaders who will follow a path in the face of doubt and obstacles, persuade and mobilize others behind a goal, and seek innovative solutions to challenging problems.

      To help accomplish this, we are building on our strengths and on initiatives that are already successful, such as students conducting cutting-edge climate research side by side with their professors through our HERO program, and mentoring programs like All Kinds of Girls, which pairs Clark students with adolescent and pre-adolescent Worcester girls at risk. Our accelerated-degree program, with the fifth-year free for eligible students, offers students the rare opportunity to earn a master's degree within a concentrated time frame.

      We are advocating for a more explicit development model where students progressively assume more responsibility for all aspects of their education—including responsibility for failure, for taking initiative, for making decisions themselves. We also are adopting the idea of "communities of practice," where, as students progress through their time at Clark, their role in the education process shifts (e.g., by becoming mentors for other students). The tension here is to wean students away from the support system we provide them as they're starting out and have them assume greater personal responsibility as they move through Clark—as this is what will be asked of them in the world.

      Last year I was part of a task force set up by the Commissioner of Higher Education in Massachusetts to identify liberal education goals for colleges and universities. As part of this task force I heard from senior business executives about how they hire college graduates and what they look for in their hires. One theme that emerged is that employers focus very much on the kind of skills that we are stressing in LEEP—both the classic skills of liberal education (e.g., critical thinking and rigorous analysis) but also capacities such as resilience, the ability to make decisions under conditions of uncertainty, and to make value-based decisions when tested. I spoke to a representative of one firm who discussed re-orienting their hiring practice from focusing primarily on career-specific skills to these broader capacities. The argument is that job-related skills can typically be developed by the firm, whereas the broader capabilities need to be developed in colleges and universities.

      Practitioners of liberal education must continue to be forward-thinking to produce the kinds of students who will become engaged citizens, professional achievers, and difference-makers. Indeed, we must help to motivate them through high-impact practices like internships, co-ops, service learning, undergraduate research, and community-based research. We've got to forge partnerships—local, institutional, and global—to ensure multiple opportunities to link research with practice, and to keep ourselves relevant and engaged. At Clark we will provide more integrative opportunities that will allow students to connect across separate courses, between disciplines and between the classroom and the world.

      Over the past few months, I have met with many recent Clark graduates, and from those conversations emerged a thoughtful idea that merits serious consideration. In effect, alumni have asked why the LEEP initiative concludes at the point of graduation. What if we imagine not a four-year program with a fixed four-year finish line, but a program that in concept extends into the early years of alumni status? The moment of graduation becomes a point of transition, not an ending.

      Consequently, we must also be aware of the changing nature of our students. Clark University Professor Jeffrey Jensen Arnett's nationally recognized research into "emerging adulthood" identifies a new life stage characterized by those in their twenties becoming increasingly noncommittal about following traditional patterns of adult development. Young adults are delaying marriage and family, and they will typically sample different jobs before settling into a career—forgoing these to travel, cultivate new friendships, and find their fit. They are questioning the value set of the generations that preceded them, essentially fashioning a new "timetable of adulthood." This development is neither "good" nor "bad," but it is another consideration when plotting the course for liberal education in the 21st century and beyond.

      It is no exaggeration to say that our community, our country, our world needs liberal education. Liberal education enables us to approach problems through multiple ways of knowing; to investigate the evidence behind the claims; to think deeply and critically; to listen, really listen, and engage in dialogue; and to learn from and appreciate difference.

      Surely as we look at the challenges of climate change and of economic dislocation; the persistence of poverty, violence, and inequality; the erosion of tolerance; and the fracturing of civic institutions, we must conclude that liberal education is a most precious resource and an investment in our common future, an investment that will pay dividends in the practical sense of employment opportunities, but also in shaping the next generation of engaged citizens.

      Clark doesn't have all the answers, nor does any single college or university. Our collective mission of gathering students beneath the tent of liberal education and equipping them with the tools, the knowledge, and the values to shake up the old paradigms requires an ongoing national conversation. Our common goal, as always, must be that when our graduates venture into the world, they are not leaving the tent, but bringing it with them.

      David Angel, President
      Clark University
      Worcester, Massachusetts

Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens Through the Twenties, chapter 1. by Jeffrey Jensen Arnett

Articles: Association of American Colleges and Universities' (AAC&U) National Initiative

Liberal Education Magazine Liberal Education and Effective Practice: The Necessary Revolution in Undergraduate Education
Richard M. Freeland, Massachusetts Commissioner of Higher Education, presents the call to arms in an article in Liberal Education (Winter 2009). Freeland held the first Jane and William Mosakowski Distinguished Professorship of Higher Education at Clark University and is president emeritus of Northeastern University.


AAC&U logoRefocusing Undergraduate Education on 'Effective Practice': Curricular Change at Clark University
Clark educational models and goals are discussed in the "Member Innovations" feature of AAC&U News (March 2009).


Liberal Education Magazine The Clark/AAC&U Conference on Liberal Education and Effective Practice
Richard M. Freeland, Massachusetts Commissioner of Higher Education, provides a summary of the conference in Liberal Education (Fall 2009).

Read short forms of some of the conference presentations published in the Fall 2009 issue.


Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) Liberal Education and America's Promise (LEAP)

The LEAP Vision for Learning [PDF]

Five High-Impact Practices: Research on Learning Outcomes, Completion, and Quality
Jayne E. Brownell and Lynn E. Swaner
Examines first-year seminars, learning communities, service learning, undergraduate research, and capstone experiences and their impact on students.

Commissioned papers

These commissioned papers stem from the 2009 invitation-only National Conference on Liberal Education and Effective Practice, co-sponsored by Clark's Mosakowski Institute for Public Enterprise and the Association of American Colleges & Universities.

Academic Intelligence is Not Enough, by Robert Sternberg [PDF]

Engaged Learning: Enabling Self-Authorship and Effective Practice, by David Hodge, Marcia Baxter Magolda, Carolyn Haynes [PDF]

Effective Practice and Experiential Education, by Janet Eyler [PDF]

Designing a Liberal Arts Curriculum that Develops the Capacity for Effective Practice, by Diana Chapman Walsh and Lee Cuba [PDF]