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NCLB Outrages

Welcome and Remarks Commencement, St. Lawrence University

President Daniel F. Sullivan, criticizes Margaret Spellings' report on U. S. universities. Sullivan wants to preserve a liberal arts education. Good. Now his next step should be to acknowledge the damage done by NCLB. He should help to preserve a non-scripted education in the elementary schools. After all, no university is an island.

by Daniel F. Sullivan, President, St. Lawrence University

Colleagues and distinguished guests, faculty, trustees, parents, friends and family of graduating seniors and masters candidates, members of the wider St. Lawrence family, and—most of all—graduating seniors and masters candidates, whether you are summa cum laude, magna cum laude, cum laude, or “thank you Lordy,” a very warm welcome to this, the commencement ceremony of the Class of 2007.

When you arrived on campus in August of 2003 I told you that “the education you would receive at St. Lawrence is ‘in the liberal arts.’ It is not professional education, or technical education, or vocational education—it is education for a life, education that inspires students to be lifelong learners, education that prepares students to make a difference in a wide array of careers, education that encourages students to find meaning in what they do, and to better understand the great issues and questions that are at the center of the quest to be a learned, educated person.” I told you that only 3% of American colleges and universities have education in the liberal arts as their primary mission and so you would become part of a very special tradition—and now you have! A warm congratulations.

But I’d like to say some more to you about liberal education before you go. Recently, Ann and I viewed an hour-long PBS program on dyslexia, and one of the points that was made has a clear parallel to liberal education: “Until universal literacy became a requirement for even minimal participation in American society, dyslexia—a learning disability of neurological origin which causes difficulty with reading and writing—remained undiscovered.” When it became critical for everyone to be able to read, the incentive grew to understand why a substantial group—some say as many as 10% of the population—of otherwise intelligent persons had enormous difficulties in learning to read.

In many respects an analogous situation applies to our need for liberal education in the world of today. Industrial societies need vast numbers of factory workers to do routine, repetitive tasks that do not involve such things as analysis, synthesis, teamwork and problem-solving, high-level written and communication skills, critical and creative thinking, intercultural knowledge and competence, quantitative literacy and information literacy. Managers, leaders and professionals need such skills in industrial society, but they are a relatively small fraction of the workforce. As manufacturing evolves from “mass production” technology to “continuous process” technology, where much of product creation and assembly are done by machines and robots that workers monitor, adjust and repair, and where labor costs are a smaller fraction of overall production costs, factory workers also increasingly need the advanced skills I note above while manufacturing that is still best done in a “mass production” way moves to less developed societies. In manufacturing involving continuous process technology, the fraction of employment that is managerial and technical grows while the fraction devoted directly to production declines.

As the manufacturing sector of an advanced economy becomes smaller in terms numbers of workers employed and the services sector grows, those high-level skills are in even greater demand. This is so even in traditional blue-collar service jobs—the complexity of today’s plumbing and electrical systems, for example, also requires plumbers and electricians who can analyze, synthesize, problem-solve and communicate.

In short, just as dyslexia was “discovered” when universal literacy became a basic societal necessity, liberal education is being “discovered” in new ways as the skills, habits of mind and personal attributes we associate with a liberally educated person become more and more necessary for almost any kind of work and life in a modern society like ours—indeed, an almost universal necessity.

The Universal Necessity of Liberal Education
That is the basic premise of “Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP),” an exciting decade-long initiative of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) begun in 2005, its 90th anniversary year. For several years I have been on the board of AAC&U, and this year I am chair-elect and will become chair in January 2008. AAC&U, with over 1,100 colleges and universities of every type and size in its membership, is “the only major higher education association whose sole focus is the quality of student learning in the college years,” and the only association devoted to fostering liberal education. LEAP’s core principle is that not only should liberal education be the central focus of post-secondary education of all types, but that it should also be the primary focus of K-12 education—our “education for allӉ€”as well. It is not just for students planning to go to college. To repeat, today’s “vocational” education must also be liberal education, for success in what we have historically called “blue-collar work” is also dependent on acquiring the skills, habits of mind and forms of personal commitment of the liberally educated person.

There is growing evidence that the American public gets this even as it is more and more clear that federal government higher education leaders and much of the Congress do not. At our January AAC&U meeting we released the results of a major survey of American business leaders—mostly chief executive officers of companies of a variety of sizes—and recent college graduates. Let me quote from the report to summarize the findings:

Employers and recent college graduates reject a higher education approach that focuses narrowly on providing knowledge and skills in a specific field; majorities instead believe that an undergraduate college education should provide a balance of a well-rounded education and knowledge and skills in a specific field. They particularly emphasize the importance of providing students with . . . .experience putting [their] knowledge and skills to practical use in “real-world” settings.

Large majorities of employers think that colleges and universities should place more emphasis on:

* Integrative learning, including the ability to apply knowledge and skills to real-world settings through internships or other hands-on experiences.

* Knowledge of human cultures and the physical and natural world, including concepts and new developments in science and technology; global issues and developments and their implications for the future; the role of the United States in the world; and cultural values and traditions in America and other countries.

* Intellectual and practical skills, such as teamwork skills and the ability to collaborate with others in diverse group settings; the ability to communicate effectively orally and in writing; critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills; the ability to locate, organize and evaluate information from multiple sources; the ability to be innovative and think creatively; the ability to solve complex problems; and quantitative reasoning.

* Personal and social responsibility,
including knowledge of global issues and developments and their implications for the future; and a sense of integrity and ethics.

The survey also indicates that there is an increasing national recognition of the importance of science and mathematics education, both as a key element of liberal education and because of the critical contribution science and mathematics education plays and will play in making possible the technological and other innovations necessary to produce a growing world economy that is environmentally sustainable. Of course, St. Lawrence and the rest of the nation’s selective liberal arts colleges got this long ago. Selective liberal arts colleges, for over a half-century, have produced 2.5 to 3 times as many baccalaureate degrees in science and mathematics as research universities and other kinds of undergraduate institutions on a proportional basis: typically from 25-40% of their graduates. The only problem is that the total enrollments of the top 60 American liberal arts colleges can fit comfortably in the University of Michigan’s football stadium! We are way out ahead, we are too few to change the big picture by ourselves, and we have to help the rest of the nation catch up.

But almost every day we read in the newspaper of efforts by Margaret Spellings, U. S. Secretary of Education, to dumb down the education for life we seek to provide at St. Lawrence and substitute something that is woefully inferior. Last fall the federal Commission on the Future of Higher Education—the so-called “Spellings CommissionӉ€”released its report, meant to be a bold outline for how higher education in America should be reformed to meet the needs of students and the nation in the 21st century. Instead, it is in its major thrusts in my view a national embarrassment. Much of the report is critical of both the system of higher education in America and the performance of the thousands of individual institutions that make up this system. Some of the criticism is deserved, if not uniformly across all sectors within higher education or across all institutions, but the report is a crude document which makes sweeping claims about the quality and effectiveness higher education as a whole.

The medicines proposed for curing the problems will in most cases only make things worse. I focus here on the Commission’s total failure to provide any guidance on what a high-quality, 21st century higher education should in fact be. There are only brief suggestions in the report that reading, writing, critical thinking, problem-solving, mathematical and scientific literacy should be important learning outcomes from higher education. In contrast, much more space is devoted to the need the Commission sees to reduce barriers students might encounter as they seek to transfer credits from one institution to another or from for-profit institutions to traditional colleges and universities even as institutions are criticized for rates of retention to graduation that are too low. The vision of higher education suggested in the report is a cafeteria, “grab and go” system about as far removed from intentional, serious, dedicated, and demanding study as one can get. And in the entire document, the word “faculty” is used only once, in an aside, as if the future strength and vitality of the nation’s professoriate were somehow irrelevant to creating and sustaining excellent higher education in the 21st century. In contrast, I suspect there is not one of you in the Class of 2007 who does not think of one or more St. Lawrence faculty members as mentors, even friends, without whom what you have accomplished here might not have been possible.

This same Secretary Spellings is today engaged in an attempt to replace the national system of voluntary peer-reviewed accreditation where performance is measured against each college or university’s mission, goals and objectives, with a one-size fits all federal government-constructed form of accreditation where institutional assessment, as in “No Child Left Behind,” will be based on standardized test results. How embarrassing that the idealistic, inspiring, made-for- 21st century-work kind of liberal education I have been describing might be driven out by the cafeteria-style, grab and go model advocated by Secretary Spellings. If that happens, it will not only be disastrous for the individuals deprived of such an education, it will also be the end of U. S. global economic competitiveness.

I take your time with this today because I want you to read the newspaper, see for yourself what silliness is abroad in American today in the area of higher education policy, and then add your voices—voices made lucid and coherent, I am confident, by the liberal education you have encountered at St. Lawrence. For you are indeed a remarkable senior class—smart, articulate, diverse, ready to make an impact. You have proven that to us over and over in your time here. Now show it to the world! Especially show it to Secretary Spellings.

We are going to miss you, the great class of 2007, very, very much. My wish for you is that throughout your life you will think of St. Lawrence as your second home, no matter where you are and what you are doing, and that you will come back home here many, many times in the years to come. Thank you!

Peter D. Hart Research Associates, Inc., “How Should Colleges Prepare Students to Succeed in Today’s Global Economy?” Conducted on behalf of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, December 28, 2006.

Ibid, 3.



— Daniel F. Sullivan
Commencement address, St. Lawrence University


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