Volume 76 | Issue 6
November 2008

Guest Column: Liberal Education and Community Building: A historical perspective

Justin Rudisille

justin112008When I first read “Rebuilding Campus Community: The Wrong Imperative,” the National Association of Scholars’ statement advocating for faculty to assume primary responsibility for rebuilding campus community, in many ways, it seemed to be calling for a return to the way things were at the ivory towers of 1636. It neglected the lessons learned throughout the development of higher education in the United States.

Throughout the history of higher education in the United States, colleges and universities have continually evolved with increases in access and the dynamic collegiate culture. The first colonial colleges followed the Oxford-Cambridge model of a classic curriculum taught to the elite in a private, residential, and religious setting. A variety of approaches were tested in the following centuries—the University of Pennsylvania opened as the first secular institution in 1751; the University of Georgia was the first to be chartered as a publicly funded state institution in 1785; the University of Virginia introduced a new elective course system in 1819; Cheyney University became the first historically black university in 1837; and Johns Hopkins University began with an emphasis on research and scholarship in 1876. While the U.S. approach to higher education developed as a hybrid of many philosophies, student populations increased in size and in diversity, and the legal status of students on campuses changed due to the rejection of in loco parentis and additional federal legislation regarding students’ rights. New campus support services became necessary to meet the community’s demands.

In response to these needs, student affairs began its formal development as a profession in the late 19th century, and through its history, it too has evolved to support new academic missions and adapt to major historical events. When development in science and technology through faculty research became a national priority, schools created men’s and women’s dean positions to provide support and education beyond the classroom. When access increased dramatically as a result of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, student affairs functions provided the mental health, housing, and social readjustment support for thousands of veterans. When campuses faced an era of unrest through the civil rights and free speech movements, opportunities for students to participate in campus decisions and receive due process were afforded through student organizations and governance. Today, student affairs divisions have developed into often complex structures serving a variety of essential functions, and much professional practice is based on empirically grounded theory and research.

While methods of student affairs administration have varied from student management to student learning, the guiding core values of the field have remained relatively consistent—emphasizing students’ holistic development, respecting individual differences, recognizing that students are agents of their own development, acknowledging the impacts of environmental characteristics on learning, and promoting the need for intentionality, empirically grounded initiatives, and collaboration in student affairs practice, as Nancy J. Evans and Robert D. Reason emphasized in the Journal of College Student Development.

So, a collective return to the way things were may not be the most effective option, considering the characteristics of the modern U.S. higher education community. Progress has been made and lessons have been learned.

That said, the call by the National Association of Scholars for a return to the fundamental ideals of a liberal education is certainly agreeable. Similar challenges were presented in the Association of American Colleges & Universities’ “College Learning for the New Global Century” [pdf] and in “Learning Reconsidered: A Campus-Wide Focus on the Student Experience,” published by NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education and ACPA: College Student Educators International. While the National Association of Scholars offers well-defined outcomes of a liberal education, its statement lacks consideration for the integration of such knowledge and skills into establishing identity, developing purpose and values, and acting with personal and social responsibility—all of which are crucial in facing the demands of modern times.

Though the statement was particularly critical of residence life programs, the college union stands as the center of college community life and offers many similar cultural, educational, social, and recreational programs. Also finding its historical roots in the student governance of institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge, perhaps it is through the college union idea that the principles of campus community for which the National Association of Scholars has called can be achieved—not independently, but in collaboration across organizational silos. Through participatory decision making and leadership, we can encourage dissent and create opportunities for students to reach their own conclusions. Through self-directed activity and meaningful involvement, we can support students’ pursuit of truth and respect individual dignity.

The higher education community can only move forward by respecting the lessons we have learned throughout our history and continuing to support the needs of the greater society. In the spirit of liberal education, the subcultures within higher education institutions must model the ideals of community and celebrate their differences while working toward the shared goal of preparing students to be successful in today’s global, multicultural society.

Justin Rudisille is an ACUI educational program coordinator.