LiberalArtsOnline

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Volume 2, Number 8
October 2002

Liberal Education and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning
by Richard Gale
Senior Scholar
The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching

Liberal learning facilitates critical perception. It helps us work consciously and conscientiously for the world we believe in, the world we want for ourselves and for our children. But such aspirations are sometimes hard for students to recognize, and even harder for faculty to assess. We know how to determine whether or not a lawyer has learned a precedent; we have no trouble testing a geologist's knowledge of plate tectonics. But how do you assess something like aesthetic appreciation, civic awareness, global preparedness, or social empowerment? Is it enough that students have exposure to these concepts? Do they need to engage with them on a deeper level? Or should they enact this knowledge through personal and social change? We tend to configure our sense of value, our use of the landscape of liberal learning in ways that are not measurable in specifically instrumental terms. Or are they?

Inherent within claims about liberal learning is the fact that so much is anecdotal: "After taking theatre history my students see the world in a new light." And if not anecdotal, evidence tends to be associative: "Everyone's getting As and Bs, so they know how to use the material." While anecdote and association are fine in and of themselves, they only go so far, and they do nothing to really inform our practice or the practice of others. What we need is another way to discover and communicate just how meaningful a liberal education can be; what we need to do is study it, make it an object of inquiry, approach it as a scholarly investigation of teaching and learning. This is, in fact, what we do at The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and what we help faculty do through the Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (CASTL).

Imagine an English professor trying to understand what happens when students encounter moments of difficulty, or a professor of religious ethics investigating the impact of social action on students' commitment to social justice. How does intellectual community contribute to student learning in a great books seminar, what counts as documentation of interdisciplinary visual literacy, what are the political consequences of taking a course in local or regional history? These are only a few of the questions asked by Carnegie Scholars over the last five years … and many more will be asked by faculty in the next cohort of Carnegie Scholars - a cohort which will focus its investigation on the subject of liberal learning.

We all believe that liberal learning matters, that classroom experience transfers to life skills and enhanced understanding. But how do we know? The job of scholarship, any scholarship in any field, is to answer that question. The goal of a scholarship of teaching and learning is to answer that question in a way that is rigorous and transferable and will contribute to public inquiry, improve ongoing cumulative student learning, and cultivate a new understanding and awareness.

During the 2003-2004 academic year, CASTL, in collaboration with the Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts at Wabash College, will work with faculty who are committed to the investigation, analysis, and dissemination of new insights about undergraduate student learning. Faculty interested in working with CASTL should read the call for scholars (available at http://www.carnegiefoundation.org/general/index.asp?key=21) and submit their applications by November 1, 2002.

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LiberalArtsOnline is an occasional email essay on the liberal arts, provided as a public service of the Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts.

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The comments published in LiberalArtsOnline reflect the opinions of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Center of Inquiry or Wabash College. Comments may be quoted or republished in full, with attribution to the author, LiberalArtsOnline, and the Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts.