A liberal education involves inventing ourselves

More than 1,000 students graduated from Evergreen – the quintessential public, alternative liberal arts college—last week, and many are the first in their families to earn a college degree. In spite of the economy, or perhaps because of it, I think earning a degree in the liberal arts and sciences still makes sense.

As Michael S. Roth, president of Wesleyan University, wrote recently, a liberal arts education enhances the capacities of the whole person: “from the revolutionary war through contemporary debates about the worth of college, American thinkers have emphasized the ways that broad, pragmatic learning enhances the capacities of the whole person, allowing individuals greater freedom and an expanded range of possible choices.”

For two quarters, my colleague Allen Mauney and I taught a program called Doing Research in Evergreen’s Evening Weekend Studies Program. Our students ranged in age from 18 to 50. Some were close to graduating; some were just starting college. Nearly all worked, many of them full-time. Some were using the G.I. Bill. Some were parents.

Evergreen’s version of liberal education is articulated through its six expectations for graduates. One expectation in particular guided our program, that students will graduate with the ability to “participate collaboratively and responsibly in our diverse society.”

In terms of teaching students to participate responsibly in our diverse society, we had students read the plan developed by Sustainable Thurston, “Creating Places—Preserving Spaces: A Sustainable Development Plan for the Thurston Region.” They also read President Obama’s “Plan to Fight Climate Change.” The combination of these documents served as the starting point for developing research questions.

Students explored topics connected to their academic concentrations (their Evergreen “majors”), their professional goals, and their civic commitments.

One student with legislative internship experience and a political science concentration was interested in how bi-partisan support for climate change legislation could be developed. The problem, he realized, was not that state Republican leaders disagreed with the science of climate change; rather, they disagreed with the role of government in addressing the issues.

Another student interested in business investigated the barriers and opportunities for small-scale, local poultry production. Price emerged as a key issue from her surveys of shoppers. In interviews, farmers reported that lack of access to locally raised chicks and locally raised organic grains were two barriers to lowering prices.

A third student who works in finance explored attitudes toward using public transportation. In addition to conducting interviews and a survey, he experimented with riding the bus with his family to try to figure out what it would take for him to use public transportation.

Evergreen is not alone in wanting graduates to develop the skills and abilities to participate responsibly in their communities. Creating a meaningful context for classroom learning by connecting it to community-based issues is standard good practice. The harder part of that expectation to realize is the one about participating collaboratively.

Collaborative learning reminds us that education, like all of life, is a deeply social process. We invent ourselves through our relations with others. At the same time, we manage ourselves within those relationships. Effective collaboration requires the ability to work well with others, but it also requires that we take responsibility for ourselves.

One night in class, I handed out index cards and gave students ten minutes to address two questions: How do I contribute to others’ learning? And, how do others contribute to my learning?

Students reported that others contributed to their learning by giving them feedback on their ideas, by “reviewing my work.” They reported contributing to others’ learning by doing the same: “trying to give thoughtful feedback” and “providing honest feedback.”

Students were also clear about the role of diverse views in their learning. Peers contributed to their learning by “challenging my preconceptions about ideas or views.” Another student wrote, “taking in others’ perspectives has been significant.”

What surprised me were the ways students wrote about creating an atmosphere of support. In terms of how they contributed to others’ learning, students wrote about “carefully listening to others” and “making myself available to listen.” Describing how other students contributed to their learning, students described their peers “listening to me talk out ideas” and “providing a comfortable environment to share ideas.”

Learning to collaborate well with others, ironically, is the key to enhancing our individual capacities. My students know this.

Emily Lardner is a member of The Olympian’s 2014 Board of Contributors.