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Promoting Wise Citizenship in a Global Context___

---For over a decade, I have studied liberal arts education as a member of the research team with the Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education. The idea of wise citizenship is at the heart of the Wabash National Study, and helped us to develop a set of seven outcomes of liberal arts education.


King, Kendall Brown, Lindsay & VanHecke (2007, p. 3) defined wise citizenship in the context of the WNS as follows: “Our goal was to produce a list of liberal arts outcomes that connected the qualities of mind commonly associated with developing wisdom with the responsibilities of citizenship, meaning the educated person’s commitment to community.”

As so defined, wise citizenship is comprised of two concepts: (1) the qualities of mind associated with developing wisdom, and (2) the responsibilities of citizenship. Although the WNS is anchored in the US context, I am curious how this concept of wise citizenship might be applied to a global context, beyond national definitions of citizenship.

Let me begin with a bit more context on the WNS data to frame the scope of our research. The Wabash National Study is a mixed method, longitudinal study across 14 institutions in the US that examined seven liberal arts outcomes using both quantitative and qualitative methods. Our research team conducted in-depth personal interviews over four years with students at six of these campuses; this qualitative portion of the research is where I have been heavily involved. We began with 315 first year students in 2006, 228 of whom returned as sophomores, 204 as juniors, and 177 as seniors. In all, our team collected 924 interviews with these students; all were transcribed and analyzed for both liberal arts outcomes and personal development.

Out of all the students who participated in the study, I want to focus on just one in this article: Jay. As I was preparing this article, I kept coming back to this particular student for a few reasons. First, I interviewed him personally, and have a vivid memory of our conversation, even long after the interview. Secondly, Jay’s educational experience took place in a global context.

When I first met Jay, he was a 20-year old first-year student. He grew up in southeast China, a few hours from Shanghai. He attended high school in Singapore, and had recently come to school at a private liberal arts college on the East Coast of the United States. It was his first time in the US. He was a new college student, but already had an idea that he wanted to study either economics, or math or physics to lead him into engineering. In his first semester, he enrolled in 18 credits – and he would go on to take 20 credits in his second semester.

Jay was adjusting to liberal arts curriculum, but he noted some dissonance in his experiences. He shared,

[In the US] there are all kinds of subjects people are studying. And [some] subjects - like dance or drama, I don’t really know how this can be related to how to find a job (laughs) … In China, people are more practical and they think the university is the way to prepare ourselves for work, but here I see people doing all kinds of things they like and they don’t really think about what they will be doing after they graduate.

Jay made comparisons between his experiences in China and his observations in the US, but I do not think this is only a cultural issue. There are plenty of students (and parents) in the US and other countries who like Jay do not see the value of liberal arts education.

In order for students (and parents) to be able to cross those disciplinary boundaries and embrace liberal arts education, it is important that they understand the value of integrated learning and liberal arts outcomes.

I want to share three ideas for how we as educators can promote liberal arts outcomes and wise citizenship in a global context. These habits of mind contribute to wisdom, as well as the responsibilities of citizenship: (a) Examine the Student Experience; (b) Embrace New Forms of Assessment, and (c) Encourage Boundary-Crossing.

Examine the Student Experience

This look at the student perspective is essential to supporting a liberal arts curriculum in a global context.

The experience of a Chinese-born student will be different from that of a US-born student. Their interpretations, how they make meaning of experiences, will be quite different. Think about Jay as an example; he was learning the culture of liberal arts education at the same time he was navigating new country, peers, and institution.

Ask students about their experiences in ways that make sense for you in your role, on your campus. I am the first to admit that 60-90 minute interviews with students are not practical in most situations. Asking students about what they are learning can take place in a five minute conversation in the hallway, or over coffee or tea, or in a focus group, or through an online survey…the format is not as important as starting the conversation with students.

Finally, as you examine the student experience, be sure to make your expectations clear to students. Liberal arts courses are often discussion based, which may be new to students. Tell students that you want them to speak up and express their ideas. Give permission for students to question the professor (or even disagree!). Explain that it is not disrespectful to have civil disagreements – in fact this skill is key to wise citizenship in a global context.

Embrace New Forms of Assessment

Second, embrace new forms of assessment. I see assessment quite simply as a process for documenting student learning and working to improve teaching and learning. Assessment is a form of evidence.

Liberal arts education is often difficult to capture, it is hard to document something like integration of learning with a test or survey. As educational leaders, we must be aware of the different learning paradigms in play, and intentionally design our assessment accordingly to promote the learning we desire. As we cross boundaries in curriculum, we must also think about crossing boundaries in assessment. Words on paper are not the only or the best way to assess the complex learning outcomes of liberal arts education.

How can we do this? Technology can be a big help. New media can allow for multiple formats in terms of language, translation, writing and spoken word. It does not have the same limitations as traditional, exam-based forms of assessment. For example, I teach a study abroad course where I bring students to China to learn about Chinese educational system, and the culminating assignment for that course is a portfolio in which students use digital storytelling to demonstrate what they have learned.

Use of portfolios, video, multimedia can open up new ways for students to demonstrate their learning as well as how they are connecting it to other areas of life.

Rubrics are a useful tool to communicate expectations to students who may not be familiar with liberal arts curriculum or integrated approaches to learning and you don’t need to start from scratch. The VALUE Rubrics from the American Association of Colleges and Universities AAC&U (Rhodes, 2009) are great resources and free to download.

New forms of assessment can help educators to document (1) the habits of mind associated with wisdom and (2) the responsibilities in community – the components of wise citizenship – better than traditional, test-driven, isolated assessment techniques.

Encourage Boundary-Crossing

One of the most significant learning experiences in the Wabash National Study was studying abroad – this came up repeatedly in student interviews. We must create programs, courses, and curricula that allow students to go abroad; we must also work to eliminate financial and scheduling barriers for students who want to study abroad. Students must not only have opportunities to study abroad, but the resources and flexibility to do so. This can be short-term experiences of 2-3 weeks (Niehaus, Holder, Rivera, Garcia, Woodman, & Dierberger, 2017), or long-term experiences of a semester, academic year, or even a degree program. This is a two-way street – empower your students to go abroad, as well as host visiting international students on your campus.

Cross boundaries of identity by including a diverse list of readings and resources in your courses. Include work from scholars that represent a variety of genders, races, ethnicities, national origins, disciplines, faiths, sexual orientations. Include voices from those in marginalized groups, and encourage students to discuss multiple perspectives. This is something you can do today – review your syllabi to see what identities are represented and which are absent.

Finally, support students through discomfort. It is not easy to cross boundaries and it can be a disorienting experience. Be there to help students along the way. Quality interactions with faculty are the foundation of a strong liberal arts education, and too often students do not experience these relationships in global contexts due to cultural barriers.

I want to end this article with a final quote from Jay. Jay finished college in three years, so his third interview was his last. He graduated with a degree in Physics and had plans to apply to graduate programs in engineering in the US. At the end of his final interview, I asked him what he would be thinking about moving forward, and he said,

…[I will be thinking more about] what kind of life I want to have when I step into society, when I start working.

Jay concluded his college experience thinking about not only the next steps for him in his career, but also about how he will fit into society and the community when he starts working – clearly making progress on his journey to wise citizenship in a global context.

Redefining Wise Citizenship in a Global Context

I want to return to the term wise citizen to consider its application in a global context. The academic context in which I’ve explored these ideas is a national study based in the United States – the Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education. However, as Jay’s story illustrated, students’ experiences are not limited to one nation, or bound to a US-centric frame.

As I consider the two concepts that form this definition of wise citizenship in the WNS, (1) qualities of mind associated with developing wisdom, and (2) responsibilities of citizenship, I am left with compelling questions about the nature of citizenship. Citizenship is by definition a status of belonging to a specific nation. So, how does this concept apply to international or transnational communities that we increasingly work to create in higher education?

For me, the concept of community resonates louder than a particular national status; the notion of belonging to a community, and the commitments to others in that community, begin to redefine the notion of citizenship in a global environment. The responsibilities of belonging to a community raises moral questions beyond national origin or affiliation. What are our obligations to others? Do we treat others with respect and dignity? What are the habits of mind that contribute not only to developing wisdom, but also to developing community?

In closing, I return to the student perspective. I wonder where Jay is today. The WNS longitudinal interviews only covered a span of four years while students were undergraduates, but upon graduation Jay was looking to pursue graduate education within the US. He clearly made progress in developing the qualities of mind and content expertise associated with wisdom as an undergraduate. I wonder where Jay found personal and professional community beyond college, and how the responsibilities of those communities overlapped with citizenship. Wherever Jay’s path led, I trust that his liberal arts education helped him to navigate the complexities of living and working in a global context.

This essay is based on plenary remarks given at the Colloquium on Supporting the Liberal Arts in Global Contexts at NYU Shanghai, March 11, 2017.

James P. Barber is Associate Professor of Education and Faculty Fellow in the Center for Liberal Arts at William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, USA. For nearly 15 years, Jim has studied the liberal arts as a researcher with the Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education. He is an expert in the areas of college student development, assessing student learning, and integrative learning. His research has been published in the American Educational Research Journal, Journal of College Student Development, Journal of Higher Education, Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, and Change Magazine. He is currently writing a book, Integration of Learning, about how college students learn across contexts (forthcoming 2019). You can reach Jim at


King, P. M., Kendall Brown, M., Lindsay, N. K., & VanHecke, J. R. (2007). Liberal arts student learning outcomes: An integrated approach. About Campus, 12(4), 2–9.

Niehaus, E., Holder, C., Rivera, M., Garcia, C. E., Woodman, T. C., & Dierberger, D. (2017). Exploring integrative learning in service-based alternative breaks. The Journal of Higher Education, 88(6), 922-946.

Rhodes, T. (2009). Assessing outcomes and improving achievement: Tips and tools for using the rubrics. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities. Retrieved from

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