The true value of general education: an interview with Richard Detweiler

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Interstate Passport Briefing
This is one of 6 articles in the July 2019 newsletter.

By Mike Hillman, co-chair of the Passport Review Board

Richard A. Detweiler

Mike Hillman, co-chair of the Passport Review Board, recently interviewed Richard A. Detweiler, the founder of HigherEdImpact, an international effort working to better educate people for lives of consequence, wisdom and accomplishment. Detweiler serves as a foundation fellow at Oxford University’s Harris Manchester College, and he is also the founder of the Global Liberal Arts Alliance, a union of 30 institutions committed to strengthening education in the tradition of liberal arts. He is a social psychologist specializing in intercultural relations and holds master’s and doctorate degrees from Princeton University.

The results of Dr. Detweiler’s research on the link between the higher education experience and life outcomes of 1,000 college students is expected to be published in book form in 2020. His data indicate that a strong liberal arts education prepares graduates for fulfilling lives and financial success. Although the study targeted the impact of a liberal arts college experience, his comments below suggest a strong link between lower-division general education practices such as those used to achieve Passport Learning Outcomes and later personal and financial success in life.

Interstate Passport: What led to your interest in the benefits of a liberal arts education?

Detweiler: My interest was two-fold. 1) My entire professional life I have been in liberal arts institutions and I have been a strong believer in this approach to higher education and, 2) in recent years the critique of liberal arts education has become more strident and liberal arts education has been rolled back at so many institutions. The defense of liberal arts was always weak and unconvincing. That is, the rhetoric for a believer is very strong and very impressive and very convincing, but for those who are not already believers, the defense of the liberal arts either didn’t make sense or was unpersuasive. That led me to ask myself the question: Are there ways to explore the meaning and intent of the liberal arts that would give new or different insight or perhaps more persuasive information as to its value and importance? If one approached the question objectively rather than defensively, are there benefits that could be demonstrated? That was the beginning of my research effort.

Interstate Passport: Your research seems to be very timely with the recent Presidential Executive Order addressing education outcomes and now a new Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation effort to examine postsecondary value (see links below). Do you think your research can inform those discussions?

Detweiler: I would like to believe it will. I don’t believe any one research project will ever convincingly answer all of the questions or even the fundamental questions, but what I wanted to do with this research was move beyond the questions of what students are like when they are in college or what are students like when they get their first job to look at longer term impact. There is really little research on long-term impact other than opinion surveys regarding what students think or how they feel about their liberal arts education. My hope is that as this new research becomes known it will influence the nature of the questions that are asked and the kinds of outcomes that people are seeking to identify for higher education. Most of the outcomes assessed for elementary education, such as mathematics or reading proficiency, can be assessed directly. Higher education is in a different category:  you are trying to educate people with outcomes that will result in them living their lives in personally and socially beneficial ways, and these outcomes are less easy to assess.

Interstate Passport:  Your research really didn’t ask people directly about their liberal arts college so much as it asked them about their interactions with faculty members or the number of humanities courses taken. In that light, how does your research on liberal arts colleges relate to a liberal arts education generally?

Detweiler: How to approach the question of impact was a very interesting issue I explored. The dilemma we face in liberal arts education is that there are almost as many definitions of what liberal arts means as there are people to define it. I ran many workshops with the participation of faculty, college presidents, academic deans, etc. One of the exercises was to develop a description of liberal arts education. Every one of those descriptions was interesting and compelling and, to me as a liberal arts educator, each felt right. But they seldom fully agreed – there were dozens and dozens of different statements, just as there are hundreds of books on the liberal arts, thousands of articles on the liberal arts, and tens of thousands of speeches on the liberal arts. So instead of beginning the research by arbitrarily accepting a single contemporary definition, this extreme diversity of ideas caused me to go back systematically through the millennia-long history of the liberal arts, focusing not only on the philosophy and content of study but also on the educational practices used and the purposes being fulfilled. This analysis generated several dozen consistent aspects of study associated with the liberal arts. These aspects weren’t intended to be an authoritative definition of the liberal arts or description of what a liberal arts college is or must be, but rather a description of educational principles and practices most consistently characterizing liberal arts study. While presumably these principles and practices would be very prevalent at liberal arts colleges, some of them could also describe liberal arts experiences students might have at a major university or state college. So rather than beginning with a defense of the liberal arts as a single concept, I began with a question: What is it about a liberal arts education that makes a difference? What aspects of this approach to a higher education are valuable?  Is it aspects of the content of study, such as the number of humanities courses taken, or completing more than half of your coursework outside of your major or being required to write papers in most classes? Or is it aspects of the educational context – how the education is delivered – such as interacting with others with different life experiences, or time with faculty outside of class, or the use of pedagogy? Rather than starting with an a priori definition of what the liberal arts is we asked people how often they experienced various liberal arts-associated practices as undergraduates. Then, as a separate set of questions, we asked people about liberal arts-associated life outcomes: leadership, altruism, continued learning, cultural involvement, life satisfaction, and personal success. We could then look empirically at relationships between their undergraduate experience and how they live their life and identify the attributes of the college experience that actually appear to make a statistically meaningful difference. The outcome focus was on the long term: what are people like as adults 10, 20 or 40 years after graduation? It turns out that the liberal arts educational context has a consistently significant relationship to virtually all of the aspects of adult behavior we investigated, whereas the specific content of study was less consistently associated with adult behavior. Among the several dozen key findings are these examples: while specialized study is associated with success in first job, over the longer term this advantage disappears and more successful people have taken more than half their courses outside their major and have learned a broader range of perspectives; altruistic adults are more likely to have had college faculty who knew the student’s first name and who spent more time with students outside of class; and those who report living a more fulfilled life took more humanities courses and also took more classes in which there was not a single right answer to questions posed.

Interstate Passport: Have you come to view liberal arts or general education as a desirable end in itself, outside of, or in addition to, an academic major?

Detweiler: What my research has told me is actually a stronger case than what I would have made before the project. Liberal arts practices – breadth of content, the development of intellectual skills, development of larger perspectives and those kind of things – invariably have a much greater and more valuable impact on people’s lives over the longer term; living fulfilled, involved, and successful lives does not depend on the major content of one’s studies but on liberal arts learning. There are short-term advantages to certain kinds of majors such as a business or engineering; otherwise, differences in academic majors seem to make little short-term difference and, as one’s life goes on, differences related to the specialization of academic major disappear in importance. Education occurring in the context of an authentic learning community, the diversity of subjects studied, the development of larger perspectives and other liberal arts-related practices are associated with long-term success, personal fulfillment, intellectual engagement, cultural involvement and other desirable outcomes. I now view many kinds of liberal arts practices as, in fact, much more important than the major per se. I am not arguing against having majors or against specific courses but I am arguing that the major really is not the driver of life’s outcomes; it’s other kinds of liberal arts experiences.

When I started this research I had financial support from foundations so I knew that whatever I found – whether liberal arts principles were supported or not – I wasn’t going to be able to sit on it or hide it. I thought: What is going to happen if I don’t find a positive impact for liberal arts educational approaches? For me personally that would have been very sad because I spent decades working on behalf of the liberal arts and it is certainly an approach to education that many people thought had value. If positive effects were not found it would have felt like a tragedy on many levels. Happily that did not turn out to be the case. It is actually a much more positive and stronger case than I would have dreamed.

Interstate Passport: How does the AAC&U LEAP program align with your research on the benefits of a liberal arts education? Does LEAP’s view of liberal arts align with the view of liberal arts in your study?

Detweiler: I would say “alignment” is the right word. Are they the same? No, but they are certainly aligned. Issues like Essential learning Outcomes identified by LEAP overlap with what I identified, but I was not trying to create a discrete list as in LEAP. Certainly there is overlap in ”high impact practices” and what I ended up calling “effective pedagogy.” I used the “effective pedagogy” label because many of the ideas that LEAP includes did not exist if a person graduated 20 or 40 years ago – yet many faculty did make use of impactful teaching and learning practices, including many of those listed by LEAP. I asked things like, “How often did most of your courses require you to write papers?” That is clearly an overlap. Internships per se were not found much 40 years ago so I did not ask about them. I did not ask about “First-Year Experiences” because that concept also did not exist then, though I did ask about having small classes and seminars with discussion in the first two years. So, yes, overlap certainly with the questions I asked but not quite identical.

One of my fundamental views is that the liberal arts is not prescriptive – it has evolved in important ways – and LEAP feels somewhat prescriptive because it identifies a list of characteristics that comprise a LEAP-defined liberal arts education. Because the research shows that different parts of the liberal arts educational experience affect different aspects of life’s outcomes, I don’t believe one should start with a list of educational attributes. Instead, in my view every institution needs to start with a question: What kind of life outcomes are you trying to create? Are you trying to create people who are culturally engaged, who exercise leadership or who are altruistic to society or who are leading fulfilled lives or who are personally successful? Start with that question and then go from the answer to identifying the kinds of liberal arts educational practices that are associated with those outcomes since different types of liberal arts-related educational experience are related to different life outcomes. In that sense, there may be a different list of educational experiences for one liberal arts institution than for another and that is fine and good as long as the starting point is to first identify the purpose and then select the educational principles and practices that will fulfill the institution’s purpose.

Interstate Passport: If LEAP were to be improved to align better with your research, what kinds of improvements would you suggest we look at?

Detweiler: What I would say goes back to my previous comments. For me, LEAP, as it is presented and to some degree implemented, involves satisfying a specific list of identified practices. My research indicates there is not a single list of learning outcomes that are appropriate to and for every liberal arts institution. This is not an objection to the content of LEAP, but for me, it feels too “check off the box,” prescriptive, and short-term focused. It has too much of that character relative to what I think liberal arts institutions really ought to be doing.

Interstate Passport:  Is there any reason that a liberal arts experience should not be transferrable between institutions?

Detweiler: No, I would say quite the contrary. The challenge is in the definition of what liberal arts is and what general education includes. Institutions need to be clear on what purpose they are trying to fulfill and then implement a liberal arts program design, not just courses but out-of-class activities and those kinds of things that contribute to those outcomes. In that sense, there could be differences among institutions in course content or design because there could be differences between institutions in terms of what purpose they are trying to fulfill. For example, if the highest priority is to create lifetime learners there could be differences in general education experiences as contrasted with an institution that wants to focus on helping people to live fulfilled lives. Those differences may call for different kinds of educational experiences. I don’t think that in any way decreases the reasonableness or viability or likely success of being able to transfer general education courses, but I do think it requires thinking carefully and clearly to assure that a student, particularly if they are consciously planning to go to one institution for two years and then to continue at another institution, takes courses that are aligned inter-institutionally.

Interstate Passport: Recent best practices in general education suggest that general education concepts should extend into upper-division level (junior and senior) coursework. Interstate Passport specifically addresses the lower-division (freshman and sophomore) general education requirements. Do you think this upper and lower division distinction provides the opportunity for liberal arts experiences to be transferrable at the lower-division level and institutionally specific at the upper-division level?

Detweiler: I think that is an elegant idea. From my research, studying broadly outside the major and engaging in issues of significance to humanity in most courses, for example, have significant long-term life impact. But the coursework or other experiences associated with these could easily be separated into inter-institutionally similar courses at the lower level and institutionally tailored courses at the upper level.

Interstate Passport: Do you have any advice for the Interstate Passport initiative now that you have had a chance to study it?

Detweiler: I am fascinated [by the Interstate Passport concept] and feel guilty that I had not known anything about it previously. I have to say it is so logical. I understand why faculty in a psychology department or a physics department at every institution may have different ideas about what content should be included in major requirements. But there should just not be that much difficulty for students at the general education level. It seems so compelling to me, so I commend you for what you are doing.

Links to Presidential Executive Order and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation study on the value of postsecondary credentials:

In addition to requiring the Secretary of Education to report on state and institutional efforts to facilitate successful transfer of credits and degree completion, the new Executive Order [https://www.insidehighered.com/sites/default/server_files/media/White%20House%20Executive%20Order.pdf] requires the annual College Scorecard to report on estimated median earnings and student loan debt and default rates for former students receiving federal financial aid.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is supporting a new 30-member panel [https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2019/05/16/gates-and-state-college-group-co-chair-postsecondary-value-commission] to study the value of postsecondary credentials. The panel is co-chaired by Gates CEO Sue Desmond-Hellmann and AASCU president Marcia Garcia.

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