A College Considers Taking the 'Liberal' Out of 'Liberal Education'

U. of Colorado
The U. of Colorado Board of Regents heard a proposal to cut the word “liberal” from the phrase “liberal education” in a portion of that body’s governing laws.

It’s found in the mission statements of scores of colleges and universities, preceding “education” or “arts.”

But the word “liberal” may be in the cross hairs at the University of Colorado. The university’s Board of Regents heard a proposal last week to remove “liberal” from the phrase “liberal education” in a portion of its governing law that characterize the university’s mission.

The university has described the suggested edit as standard cleanup, but the proposal has spurred worries of sending the wrong message in an era of angst over the health of the liberal arts and the word’s political connotations.

Debate about the word “liberal” and its role in academe is a familiar story for Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

“There is that prevailing national rhetoric that presumes that college and university campuses are bastions of liberalism,” Pasquerella said. “But when we go back to the historic meaning of liberal education in the sense of the stoics, who argued that we should liberate the mind from past dispositions, it becomes clearer.”

At least two of the University of Colorado’s peer institutions in the Association of American Universities mention “liberal arts” in their mission statements. Indiana University points to its “grounding in the liberal arts and sciences.” Michigan State University’s statement refers to its “liberal arts foundation.”

For all the soaring rhetoric used to describe it, there’s some confusion about what, exactly, a “liberal” or “liberal arts” education means. David Strauss, a principal at the higher-education consulting firm Art & Science Group, said some people define liberal-arts education in terms of the disciplines it encompasses — humanities, arts and social and natural sciences. Others, he said, see “liberal arts” as an approach to learning any type of subject matter.

“Part of the reason that the debate rages,” Strauss said, “is because nobody really agrees on what the definition is.”

Strauss says he’s worked with members of institutions’ governing boards who identify themselves as politically conservative and are not comfortable associating with what they perceive to be a liberal-leaning university. Instead, Strauss said, they’d prefer to strike “liberal” from “liberal education,” just as the University of Colorado proposed.

Gerald R. Greenberg, an associate professor of linguistics at Syracuse University, has pointed out that those who confuse “liberal” in its education sense with the political meaning have got it all wrong. In an essay published in The Washington Post, Greenberg writes that”the liberal in liberal arts and liberal education does not stand in contrast to conservative. Rather, it derives from the Latin liberalis, associated with the meaning of freedom. Liberal, not as opposed to conservative, but as free, in contrast to imprisoned, subjugated or incarcerated.

Others worry that a focus on the liberal arts devalues more professionally oriented fields.

“If we speak about a liberal education, then what do we say about the medical school, law school, engineering school, that aren’t necessarily grounded in the liberal education?” Pasquerella said.

Removing “liberal” from “liberal education” in the Regent Laws, a spokesman for the University of Colorado system said, alludes to neither argument.

The policy reads that the university’s mission is “to afford men and women a liberal education in the several branches of literature, arts, sciences and the professions.”

“The University of Colorado is not debating liberal education or liberal arts education,” Ken McConnellogue, vice president for communication, wrote in an email.

Instead, he wrote, it’s an affirmation of the university system’s commitment to academic freedom, which is laid out in the next sentence of the governing laws.The “aims” of a liberal education, it says, “can be achieved only in that atmosphere of free inquiry and discussion, which has become a tradition of universities and is called ‘academic freedom.’”

‘Sends the Wrong Message’

The phrase “liberal education” appears in the laws and policies of the regents as well as in university policy — always in the context of academic freedom, McConnellogue said. Dropping the word “liberal” would indicate “that academic freedom is a core principle of the university no matter the curricular context,” he wrote.

And because “liberal” appears only once in the Regent Laws, deleting the reference would align them more closely with other university documents.

McConnellogue noted that the proposed change would apply only to the Regent Laws, meaning it wouldn’t directly affect students or faculty. Linda Shoemaker, a university regent voting on the issue, defines it as a “philosophical question.”

But philosophical or not, Shoemaker says, the question is an important one.

Dropping “liberal” “sends the wrong message” about the University of Colorado’s mission, she said. It would shift emphasis from the broader worldview that liberal-arts courses teach job-specific skills.

“Students are pressed to know what they want to do for a career early on; they’re pressed to take a lot of courses in their major,” Shoemaker said. “But I would still like them to know what the liberal world order is; to take some general-interest courses where they can learn to integrate critical thinking skills into their world.”

During meetings last week, the Colorado board moved to vote on the issue at its September meetings. Doing so would allow time for a governance subcommittee hear concerns, McConnellogue said.

When the board reconvenes in September, Shoemaker said, she believes a board-majority consensus will oppose dropping “liberal.” Several of her fellow regents — both Republican and Democrat, she said — told her they felt the same way she did.

“Assuming that those votes hold, I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to pass that, so that the policy would revert to its original language and would not be changed,” Shoemaker said.

The proposed change risks devaluing liberal education “at a time when we have reduced higher education to employability.” Pasquerella said. “It reinforces the idea that the only value of an education is whether you can get a job upon completion.”

And while the proposed change in Colorado may seem to be a nominal one, it’s part of a larger discussion, Pasquerella said.

“The way we talk,” she said, “reflects the way we think. This is an undermining and devaluing of liberal education as central to what’s necessary for student success.”

Manuel Luis Espinoza, an associate professor of educational foundations at the University of Colorado’s Denver campus, said he worries that changing the Regent Laws could lead to broader measures.

“We shake our head,” Espinoza said of talking about the proposed change with colleagues, “because we think, Here’s another bid to to alter what it is that we do and in the broadest sense possible.”

The words matter, he said.

“You could change the language,” Espinoza said. “But I don’t think we’re going to stop doing what we do.”

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