"I believe undergraduate education is and must be as much about character and citizenship as about careers and commerce."

By Robert A. Scott, President, Adelphi University

From the Association of American Colleges and Universities journal Liberal Education.Vol. 99, No. 4.

What is the purpose of college? I believe undergraduate education is and must be as much about character and citizenship as about careers and commerce. In this essay, I will comment on the structure of general education and give emphasis to four key elements. These four include the “liberating” aspects of general education; the need for an emphasis on questions more than on answers; the meaning of a global perspective; and the connections of each of the above to extra-curricular experiences and engaged citizenship.

In addition to majoring in a subject, and in order to fulfill the purpose of a university education, undergraduate students must learn about and consider the natural world of air, water, and soil we meet upon birth; the world we make, including literature, history, business, architecture, and manufacturing; and the means by which we mediate between the world we meet and the world we make, including philosophy, ethics, religion, psychology, and stories of compassion. This is advanced education, a liberating education, a transformational experience of questions, not training focused on answers. This is the foundation of general education.

There are those who argue for the “old-fashioned” liberal arts and sciences, the trivium and quadrivium of the ancients: language and reasoning, but updated to today’s needs. Still others argue that the best preparation is in a licensed field, such as accounting, nursing, teaching, or another field of study that leads to certification and a career. Both routes can be appropriate, but the optimum approach is to combine the two. Many universities do this by requiring even accounting and nursing students to take a substantial number of courses in what is called General Education, a contemporary approach to language and reasoning. We encourage students in the arts and sciences to participate in internships.

Unlike many, I do not think of this as the “information age;” it is the “imagination age.” This is a time, perhaps more than ever, that requires creative approaches to solving problems. In fact, I think the three most important aspects of learning are history, imagination, and compassion.

One way to think about the question of what to study is to reflect on contemporary issues and ask what lessons we have learned. A quick survey of the past several years would show that too many people in even sophisticated roles lacked knowledge of history, and did not have the personal or professional memory in which to place contemporary issues. They lacked context. This was particularly evident in the financial and real estate arenas. So, history is an essential subject, especially if we are to understand the different ways people “know” the truth, by evidence, by epiphany, by emotion, and how they challenge assumptions and validate assertions. Without this background, they cannot distinguish cant from Kant, or between and among issues of law, morality, and ethics.

The second area to develop is that of imagination. The exercise of magination permits us to see patterns, to see where they diverge and when they converge. It requires us to listen, to understand, to tolerate the silence and to comprehend before we respond. It seems clear now that even high profile people confronted new problems without the ability to see the connections between different variables, could not visualize or forecast directions, could not approach issues with creativity. They had not developed the capacity to wonder, to experience discovery, to both look and to see. They could look and not perceive, hear and not know, understand a thing and be completely ignorant of it, as Marilynne Robinson noted in Gilead. They lacked an ability to distinguish between shades of green or shades of meaning.

The third area to develop is that of compassion, the ability to be empathic. Compassion is the ability to listen, truly hear and comprehend another person’s perspective, and be fair and just.

The skills and abilities needed in the world today are not only knowledge of balance sheets and how to analyze them, but also understanding the dynamics of cultures and how people interact. Too many adults seem to lack self-awareness and any preparation in critical reflection and thinking: they are those for whom answers hide questions, both about themselves and about others. It is said that the study of literature and history is designed to help us see the questions and assumptions so often hidden by answers, and develop a meaningful philosophy of life.

One of my favorite quotes is by the author James Baldwin, who commented on the “questions hidden by answers.” Often, when someone proposes a solution, I will say, “That’s an answer, what’s the question?” Please clarify the question. Remember the wise one who asked his child each day not, “What did you learn today?” but “What questions did you ask today?”

We also must think about the answers we hear, because, so often, “ideology knows the answer before the question has been asked,” as stated by George Parker in The New Yorker. It was the sociologist Daniel Bell who wrote, “Ideology makes it unnecessary for people to confront individual issues on their individual merits.” Or, as H.L. Mencken could have put it: divisive political rhetoric provokes caricatures and provides answers that are “neat, plausible and wrong.” So, again, focus on questions.

All of which leads to another choice. Many academic programs tied to particular professions focus on “how to do” things – – training – – rather than on “how to analyze, comprehend, and communicate about” things – – the purpose of education. They focus on how to engage in a transaction, whether a stock sale or a real estate acquisition, instead of on transformation- i.e. turning different pieces and parts into something new by finding a synthesis of existing ideas or by elevating one’s thinking beyond the immediate to the more universal, a purpose-guided endeavor. Employers prefer those who can write and speak clearly, are imaginative, inquisitive, critical thinkers, and comfortable with colleagues and customers of diverse backgrounds.

The more universal approach includes preparation for a full, well-rounded life as a professional, citizen, and family member, and for work that has meaning and provides fulfillment. The current crisis of finance and politics reveals that, in many cases, those with ultimate responsibility did not ask questions about that which they do not understand.

Using these thoughts as a guide, students and families should look at academic programs that have a strong grounding in the liberating arts and sciences, and that give the student an opportunity to master a subject matter to a sufficient degree to enter a profession either directly upon graduation, or after graduate school, and gain a network of fellow students and alumni who can become life-long links to careers and social life. They will be composing a life even as they prepare to earn a living.

What I call a liberating education, which ought to be the goal of general education, fosters the ability to distinguish between what is true and what is false, with a number of different analytical perspectives: the scientific, the artistic, the humanistic, the quantitative, and the qualitative. It helps students understand that to measure something indicates it is valued, but that not everything of value can be measured.

The liberating curriculum is not just general education or liberal arts, as it is often called, but a program for citizenship, for civilianship, a civic degree. It is liberal in its form of inquiry; it honors no revealed truth but intellectual growth. This curriculum is a preparation for living, for wondering why. It purports not just to teach one how to earn a living, but how to live. It offers instruction and experience in both technique and vision – the ultimate combination in education.

Retired Vice Admiral James B. Stockdale, a Medal of Honor winner and the man who organized American prisoner-of-war resistance during his nearly eight years in Hanoi prisons, expressed the major characteristics of what I call a civic degree by stating,

A liberally educated person meets new ideas with

curiosity and fascination. An illiberally educated

person meets new ideas with fear.

This style of education has surprisingly diverse attributes. From it, students gain the confidence to take initiative, solve problems, and formulate ideas; they develop skills in language, learning, and leadership. They also learn about domestic and foreign culture, history, mathematics, science and technology. This approach emphasizes reasoning in different modes; clear and graceful expression in written, oral, and visual communication; organizational ability; tolerance and flexibility; creativity; and sensitivity to the concerns of others and to ethical and aesthetic values.

These are its aspirations: to teach the ordinary student to be a cultured person; to develop in students the capacity to check assumptions and to understand the value-laden choices that await them as consumers, decision-makers, and arbiters of ethical choices at home, at work, and at the ballot box; to help students understand and build a civilization compatible with the nature and aspirations of human beings and the limitations of the environment. These are ideals which are open to students of any age or station, and to any faculty; they are not the province of a particular department or school.

Such a curriculum must be designed; it cannot just happen. It is a means, and its ends, or purposes, must be considered as part of the basic design. As Raymond Loewy might say, simplicity must be foremost; humane values must transcend technological values; and democratic –nay civic-values must overcome the desire for exclusivity.[1]

These are the benefits of an education that liberates students from their provincial origins, from prejudices masquerading as principles, no matter what their nationality, socioeconomic status, age, or religion. They, and we, grow up in mostly isolated, two-generation, mono-cultural communities, and have little experience with those some think of as the “other.” They lack a global perspective.

The objectives for global education were well expressed by the Atlantic Council in 1989:

  • To provide students with a sense of time and place
  • To challenge students to appreciate the complexity of issues and interests that bear on relations among nations, regions, and power groups
  • To prepare students to take account of the new and changing phenomena that affect international relations
  • To encourage critical thinking and inquiry about contending concepts and theories of international relations
  • To “de-parochialize” students’ perspectives on international affairs
  • To heighten understanding that international relations are not static, but subject to constant change[2]

That is, our students should know other cultures, and be competent in communicating with other people. One might note that the goal is for global education and understanding, or competence, not global citizenship, which implies a universal policy.

It is important for people as citizens to be aware of international and intercultural differences and similarities because so many communities are home to new immigrants from other countries. Citizens cannot be fully responsible unless they are more knowledgeable about and sensitive to the differences in culture which are becoming so prominent in our communities and school populations in the realms of food, family life, public health, business practices, etc.

Most students will work with individual entrepreneurs, small business owners, and corporate executives either before or after they go to graduate school, if that is their goal. They will need access to timely and accurate information and high quality training for setting up business in other countries, selling to foreign markets, importing goods and materials, gaining access to foreign capital, and entering into joint ventures, both here and abroad, with international firms.

To summarize, the imperatives for global education include issues of national security; peaceful, respectful relations between and among people and nations; economic competition and cooperation; environmental interdependence; diversity in our midst; foreign-owned employers; international trade and currency efforts; and graduates who will supervise or be supervised by people of different ethnic, national, or racial backgrounds. All neighborhoods are affected by international influences, including population, products, petroleum, prices, and peace.

Therefore, faculty need to know how to incorporate a cross–cultural, international perspective in the curricula of virtually all subjects. This includes the humanities, sciences, social sciences, arts, business, other professions, etc. This is more than language competency, but also includes cultural awareness, social knowledge, geography, economics, and history.

The president of Bowdoin College said recently, “It is time to stop talking about replacing the traditional college experience with online learning, and to start talking about making that experience available to every enterprising individual. That means more than making it affordable, it means making higher education relevant, connected, and engaged with the changes that are sweeping our society … the revolution we need is the one that connects the best and brightest students from every level of our society to the immersive, nurturing environment of college campuses.”[3]

This is not “head in the sand” thinking; it is an acknowledgement that the transformative experience so highly valued in undergraduate education requires a faculty member and a student engaged in learning. I call such an approach the “curriculum as a covenant”, general education as a commitment for a new age.

This commitment must include an introduction to the uses of technology, including online learning. This tool has utility in the classroom as a new source of supplementary expertise, just as now garnered from visitors, videos and visits to labs, concerts, museums, studios and factory sites. We can gain a “sage on the stage” through technology, but we do not give up our role as the “guide on the side” for instruction and advising.

In addition, institutions of higher education must be ready to receive requests from current and prospective students for advanced placement and credit toward general education and major requirements for online courses taken elsewhere. They also should be prepared to offer advanced education and training to graduates no matter where they are located, taking advantage of alumni affinity and the technology platform that exists and is already used on campus.

There have been many attempts to define the optimal freshman year and four-year General Education program. After years of experience and consideration, I have formulated my ideal approach. It would consist of three clusters of topics to be addressed in the first year of college study and then extended over the four years as part of the General Education curriculum.

The three clusters would include, first, “The World We Meet” upon birth, that is earth, air, and water, the natural world, including biology, chemistry, physics, and all else subsumed by these subjects.

A second cluster would address “The World We Make”, that is, culture and creative endeavors, and all that they include, especially history, literature, sociology, international relations, business, technology, manufacturing, economics, etc., all of which are products of human enterprise. This also would include an introduction to the different forms of scholarly endeavor, including discovery or pure basic research, applied research, integrative approaches combining the results of different fields, and pedagogy, that is, the improvement of teaching and learning.

The third cluster would include the systems of thought by which we mediate between the world we meet and the world we make. These include the methods by which we make moral choices, ethical decisions, general judgments, and compassionate responses, and all that informs them, such as philosophy, religion, and psychology.

By organizing the General Education curriculum around these three clusters, we would require extensive reading, writing, listening, and oral presentations, as well as the use of technology. This would help prepare students for all courses of study they would take in subsequent years, thus fulfilling our pledge that while we cannot teach everything, we can prepare students to learn almost anything.

The cluster related to the natural world would include faculty in the sciences prepared for interdisciplinary teaching. Likewise, the cluster of courses related to culture would provide an interdisciplinary approach such as that developed by programs in International Studies or Public Health. Finally, the cluster related to mediation would call upon faculty in philosophy, ethics, and religious studies, and others who use literary, historical, and philosophical perspectives, depending upon their expertise and interest, to address questions of law, morality, and ethics, and how they differ in mediating values.

In each case, extracurricular clubs, organizations, teams, internships, voluntarism and service learning, on and off campus, provide opportunities to apply learning, learn from additional sources, and advance in knowledge, develop skills and abilities, and refine a set of values.

Such a program could become a distinctive feature of Adelphi’s education – – a signature program – – and help make the University still more attractive to the most talented students because of its innovative and interdisciplinary approach. Such an approach would require extensive faculty and curriculum development, for which we could seek special funding.

By organizing the curriculum in this way, we can reduce the effect of departmental and school silos, and encourage cross-disciplinary study, critical thinking and analysis, and a focus on writing. By the way, one of the complaints I hear from faculty is that they are not prepared to teach writing. To that I say, don’t. Teach thinking and then assess the ability of students to express their thoughts with clarity, comprehensiveness, persuasiveness, and logic. Doing this, focusing on thinking and the written and oral expression of thinking, will assist students in becoming better writers.

This is the way we should be preparing students for the world they will enter upon graduation. We want them to study that for which they have a passion, because that is most likely to lead to success, but then we have the obligation to organize and support internships, service learning and other activities beyond the campus so that students are prepared for their next steps, whether it be graduate school or employment. These internships foster learning by doing, learning from doing, and encourage a lifetime of engagement with the broader society.

After all, our mission is as much about the development of good character and the encouragement of engaged citizenship as it is preparation for careers and commerce.


[1] Scott, Robert A. “The Curriculum as a Covenant.” The College Board Review, No. 121, Fall 1981, p.22.

[2] Post World War II international Relations as a component of general education in American Colleges and Universities The Atlantic Council of the United States, Washington, D.C., 1989, p.7

[3] Johnson, Robert E. “Higher Education: The Revolution That Really Matters.” Huff Post, College, January 12, 2013.

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