Liberal Arts Under Pressure

Making cuts to liberal arts courses overlooks the significant benefits such an education provides to students, workers and the economy, writes Roger W. Ferguson Jr.

May 6, 2019
 
 
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How much do we value the liberal arts? Recent decisions in higher education continue to send mixed signals. In a positive development, the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point seems to have reversed a previous decision to make deep cuts in liberal arts programs. West Virginia’s Wheeling Jesuit University, however, recently announced the elimination of all liberal arts majors and laid off most of its liberal arts faculty.

These are tough decisions that no administrator wants to make, but cuts to liberal arts are likely to continue amid increasing budget constraints and pressure from outside forces to make colleges and universities more career focused. I’m sensitive to the need to draw clearer connections between college degrees and workplace opportunity, but eliminating the liberal arts overlooks the significant benefits such an education provides to students, workers and the economy.

Higher education leaders have certainly noticed students’ growing interest in science, technology, engineering and math disciplines. The number of undergraduates majoring in computer science more than doubled from 2013 to 2017, according to the Computing Research Association. That is a positive trend, because society will need more computer scientists, people fluent in the intricacies of technology and workers with an understanding of big data to help drive advances in many fields.

But we will need so much more.

We will need workers with the critical thinking skills to identify challenges and recognize patterns in human behavior to help solve them. Workers with an awareness of history and how individuals shape, and are shaped by, past events. Workers who can communicate clearly and persuasively to vocalize their needs and the needs of others, and to boldly lead companies, charities and countries into an unpredictable future. The goal for all students should be to develop as expansive an education as possible, rooted in both skills and the knowledge that allows people to use those skills in broader and evolving context.

Yet the value of a broad education is under attack. In addition to the cuts liberal arts programs are enduring at many institutions, narrow vocational alternatives to college are proliferating, particularly in computer science. It’s true that enrolling in a coding boot camp may guarantee a job after six or 12 or 18 months, and there’s value there. But a college or university will offer a computer engineering degree accompanied by an understanding of history, languages and literature -- knowledge that makes for a more dynamic and creative coder, which is to say, a coder that’s in higher demand.

Similarly, a college will offer history, sociology and theater majors the opportunity to take classes in computer science, math, chemistry or engineering, allowing them to see the world from different angles and maybe develop new passions. A humanities major may go on to medical school, or a passion for health care may lead to a career as a fund-raiser for a great hospital.

The idea that society needs only one type of worker, or that a worker needs only one type of knowledge, has never been true. Looking back on the many hiring decisions I’ve been privileged to make or influence over my career, some of the very best candidates and hires have had backgrounds in the liberal arts. In fact, the ability to think across disciplines is a quality my company looks for when hiring at all levels.

We’re not alone. LinkedIn’s most recent U.S. Emerging Jobs Report shows that jobs related to blockchain and machine learning are seeing big growth. But the skills in highest demand -- and the ones where employers see the biggest gaps -- are oral communications and people management. These skills translate across industries and jobs, and acquiring them will help people thrive as our economy reshapes work.

Where does a person learn how to relate to other people? How to communicate a message that’s calibrated for different listeners? How to work collaboratively to solve problems? We learn these things at colleges and universities that offer diverse classes full of diverse people. That experience shouldn’t be short-circuited in a misguided effort to turn campuses into professional boot camps.

So as administrators look at ways to solve serious budget problems, and policy makers consider the future of the university and the work force, I urge them to remember that humanities and social sciences programs are vitally important. They give graduates the skills necessary to think critically, engage conceptually, communicate effectively and adapt to a work force that will present unknown opportunities and challenges in the future. The liberal arts will help graduates land a good job -- and do so much more.

Bio

Roger W. Ferguson Jr. is president and CEO of TIAA.

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