The Bologna Process and Liberal Education

          It’s heartening to learn that respected, influential nations can rally behind a shared objective of monumental importance, agree on and make lasting improvements.  In this case, the shared objective is improving higher education and the rallying nations are from all over Europe.  Not just the EU; there are 46 countries in all who have participated in what’s become known as “The Bologna Process.”

            In a nutshell, the goal of the Bologna Process is to revitalize higher education throughout Europe by standardizing it, creating one European system, easily accessible across borders, operating under a shared protocol, promoting cooperation between institutions, with one intention:  to facilitate high quality education for students in Europe, preparing them to be a driving force in a global economy.

            Paul Gaston’s new book The Challenge of Bologna, details the process, from its inception through where it is today.  The story, as Dr. Gaston tells it, is impressively broad and deep.  But I think the accomplishment of this book is its description of the convening of the process, the collisions among participants, describing the nuances of their positions in ways that make sense.  And, finally, it’s rather thrilling to realize the participants in the process have united behind a shared mission, making progress despite differences on something they believe in the importance of.  Their differences are worth resolving.

            In the U.S., we have significant problems in our own system, and they’re affecting our ability to compete globally.  Dr. Gaston argues that the U.S. ignores the lessons of Bologna at its peril.  Our “long-standing reputation for preeminence—both educationally and economically” is eroding, and we’re not correcting for it fast enough.  One advantage we should be exploiting is the U.S. higher education emphasis on a liberal education.  He cites growing evidence for “the pragmatic benefits of a liberal education—intellectual agility, a capacity for independent learning, an engagement with the advantages of diversity, and an enthusiasm for collaborative effort, for instance—are closely aligned with effectiveness and fulfillment on the job.”        

           The Challenge of Bologna concludes with a recommendation that the U.S. undertake its own Bologna.  No one can say higher education in this country couldn’t use close scrutiny and a plan for action.  But in a culture as polarized as ours, as ready to blame others, embrace ideology and find quick fixes for the most difficult problems, I’m less than optimistic about the prospects for higher education reform here.  Not to mention we lack a sense of urgency.  Our fall from economic dominance is too recent.  We haven’t begun to seriously consider a recovery strategy is needed, certainly not one that would include a hard look at how we’re preparing our next leaders.

           But maybe I’ve been tuning into national politics too often and discounting, as a result, that reasonable thinking people could undertake this kind of significant reform.  Bologna is an impressive example.  Could we do the same here?  I hope so.

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