A liberal education

Last year I posted about a workshop whose goal was to define environmental literacy. The workshop concluded that environmental literacy was not just about knowledge but also required some element of motivation or involvement. (The document that emerged from the workshop is available here.) This is a somewhat radical idea, because we think of education as designed to convey information. Education that is designed to affect attitudes can sound suspiciously like propaganda; education to affect behavior can sound like indoctrination.

In reality, information can’t be fully disentangled from values. As a simple example, you might value something more (like, say, bats) once you learn what beneficial role they play. And education is supposed to affect your behavior. Ever taken driver’s ed? The difference between propaganda and education is that a good educator will not tell you how to act or how to think, but give you the information that allows you to make good choices.

Recently, President Cornwell, along with other college presidents from around the world, was in a working group whose mission was to define the goals of a global undergraduate education. Their essay, to be published next fall in Liberal Education, argues that education has to prepare people for participation in society. Such an education includes literacies (here’s where traditional learning fits), skills, and disposition. I particularly like a couple of the dispositions they identify:

Agency: the resolve to transform commitment into action by promoting change, by resisting the unacceptable, and by championing justice

Service: a commitment to support the wellbeing of others and the global commons more broadly

As President Cornwell states in the paper,

“The kind of education we propose is practical… it is preparation for effective and responsible adult agency throughout a life engaged with the global realities we describe.”

You can only be free to make your own choices if you understand the forces that act upon you and use this understanding to guide your own behavior.

The fundamental message is that education is not something that a faculty delivers to a student, but a product of the interaction between them. The teacher’s job is to provide information (e.g., about climate change, desertification, or species loss). But the student has to use the information, and incorporate it into decisions that will shape the future of society.

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