Colleges start new academic programs

The disadvantages and dangers of making cuts to the liberal arts (opinion)

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.

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

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Concordia U's Liberal Arts College wanted conservative scholar Harvey Mansfield to speak at an alumni gala -- until it didn't

Concordia U's Liberal Arts College, in Canada, wanted conservative scholar Harvey Mansfield to speak at an alumni gala -- until it didn't. But revoking Mansfield's invite didn't settle an internal debate.

Important ways to revitalize the humanities (opinion)

When we entered college around 1980, no area on campus was more energetic and cool than the humanities. Back then, prestige was high -- people wanted to know what those deconstructionists were up to. The share of bachelor’s degrees in the humanities had dropped in the ’70s, but enrollments were still strong.

At the University of California, Los Angeles, which one of us attended, a course on Italian film (de Sica, Rossellini, Visconti, Fellini, Antonioni) drew 400 students every semester. In the preceding decade, cutting-edge journals had been founded -- New Literary History, Critical Inquiry, diacritics and boundary 2 -- while the School of Criticism and Theory at the University of California, Irvine, had become one of the hottest annual academic gatherings.

In a few years, The New York Times Magazine would profile literary theorists at Yale University, “unquestionably brilliant” and dashingly roguish, with glossy photos attached (“The Tyranny of the Yale Critics”). William Bennett, Allan Bloom, The New Criterion et al. would declare the humanities elite a leading threat to traditional education -- which only flattered the targets. It was easy to believe that what happened in humanities classrooms was momentous and adventuresome.

That’s how it seemed to us. To younger humanities teachers and students in 2019, that attitude is now inconceivable -- rendered impossible by an altered reality. Today, as has been amply reported on this site, English, history, foreign languages and philosophy combined make up barely 5 percent of all four-year bachelor's degrees. In recent years, the decline has become precipitous. The American Historical Association reports that between 2011 and 2017, the number of history degrees awarded dropped more than 30 percent, and philosophy, English and foreign languages more than 20 percent.

We cannot expect a turnaround, either. According to the 2016 American Freshman Survey, which polls first-year students soon after they matriculate, a meager 1.3 percent of respondents aim to major in English, 0.9 percent in history and 0.3 percent in any of the languages.

The causes for this decline are many and include shifts in employment patterns and the far more substantial funds supporting scientific research that, in turn prompt colleges and universities to pour money into those fields. Trying to reverse the decline in student interest, humanities professors are urged to make their syllabi more relevant and topical, while requirements for the major and the doctorate have been lightened. Innovative formations such as digital humanities have come along, and social issues, too, such as LGBT rights, have energized many teachers.

But these innovations won’t rebuild undergraduate enrollments unless they do something else as well. They must impress 19-year-olds as we were impressed 40 years ago, convincing them that here, in the humanities, they will encounter works that touch them deeply, challenge them fundamentally and change their lives. They may not secure you a high-paying job right after graduation, but they may give you a lifetime of company with inexhaustibly fine human creations, and that’s a priceless acquisition.

We know that this demand will appear anachronistic, even willfully so, but there is persuasive empirical evidence that it can succeed and even flourish in the midst of our technocratic age.

The Lyceum Program at Clemson University -- home to arguably the best college football team in America -- is a minor in political science. It assigns classics of political theory (Aristotle, Hobbes, Marx and the like) in an eight-course sequence. The courses are tough, the pedagogy intense. Those students awarded a scholarship of $2,500 per year must meet weekly with faculty advisers for an hour of focused discussion. Class presentations concentrate intensely on the texts, most of which are more than 100 years old.

The program runs squarely against the trend toward contemporary materials, but since the program started, applications for the scholarship program have leaped from 192 to more than 650 in just five years. The demand has been so high that the leadership opened the program two years ago to nonscholarship students. Those enrollments have quickly risen from zero to 102.

Similar bottom-up demand may be found at the University of Texas at Austin’s Jefferson Center for the Study of Core Texts & Ideas, which immerses students in “the study of the great books.” The program began only a few years ago, in 2014. Last year, it received 500 applications for 130 slots in its Scholars Program.

At the high school level, too, students are choosing institutions with an emphasis on the classics. Great Hearts Academies started 15 years ago with one middle school enrolling 120 students. The curriculum follows E. D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge program in the early grades; it focuses on Western civilization and Latin (or Greek or a modern language) in later grades. Consider these numbers: the network now has 28 schools enrolling 17,000 students, with a huge waiting list.

The trend, we add, isn’t just about the traditional great books courses. A recently created major in the medical humanities at Johns Hopkins is the fastest growing in the school of arts and sciences. Its readings include Homer, biblical texts, Dante, Kierkegaard, Thomas Mann and contemporary film.

The power and popularity of classical liberal arts has altered the college testing world, too. If students wish for an alternative to the SAT and ACT, they can now take an exam aptly named the Classic Learning Test. Its reading portion skips those tepid passages found on many standardized tests and instead has students respond to writings by Aristotle, St. Augustine, Jane Austen and Ben Franklin. Only three years old, the CLT is accepted by 150 colleges and expects 25,000 to 40,000 high schoolers to sit for it this year.

In short, empirical evidence shows that the profound and the sublime that has long been the siren call of the humanities remains as compelling today as it has been for 24 centuries.

What attracts students to these works, and the teachers who render them present? The answer may be simpler and more profound than the professoriate will acknowledge: human experiences matter more than objects, and encounters with the most searing elements of our humanity are the most fundamental experiences of all.

Our house stood within a few rods of the Chesapeake Bay, whose broad bosom was ever white with sails from every quarter of the habitable globe. Those beautiful vessels, robed in purest white, so delightful to the eye of freemen, were to me so many shrouded ghosts, to terrify and torment me with thoughts of my wretched condition. I have often, in the deep stillness of a summer's Sabbath, stood all alone upon the lofty banks of that noble bay, and traced, with saddened heart and tearful eye, the countless number of sails moving off to the mighty ocean.

We are powerfully affected by such lines from Frederick Douglass’s great Narrative, though we’ve experienced nothing like the horrors of American slavery. It is these elements that the best books, music, art and history -- of every period and across cultures -- address: the fact of our mortality; the capacity to love and fear; the ubiquity of pain, joy, ambition, sorrow and hope.

In the misguided quest for relevancy and novelty, we forget that “education” means to draw out. That is, to show students new worlds, confront them with the sublime and the strange, sharpen their taste for beauty, refine their moral compass and deepen their judgment -- in short, to invite them into an examined life.

Too much of contemporary teaching aims at the reverse: flattering the self (instead of coaxing them out of their adolescent selves), foregrounding topical issues without probing them deeply and focusing on skills rather than knowledge. The result: institutions across the United States that press critical thinking as an educational goal in itself -- critical thinking about nothing in particular.

We urge colleges and universities to risk a dramatic reversal: instead of pursuing fashion, let humanities professors work to create deeply demanding courses that confront students with searing, elemental, beautiful and soul-searching materials. Let the requirements be serious -- matching those of the sciences for the expected time commitments. Let students hear a poem read in the original language and then study the challenges of translation; invite them to wrestle with the abstract language of modernism or explore the metaphysical maze of a Donne sonnet. Teach them to absorb the music of Beethoven and the Modern Jazz Quartet with acute ears. Above all, don’t apologize for difficulty, but ensure that professors who offer such courses teach what they love and know deeply, and hold as precious jewels.

We knew the difference when we were undergraduates, and students still know the difference. Our hunger 40 years ago for genius and insight and historic events and personages isn’t absent from the hearts of the Class of 2022. They have it just as much as we did. Science stretches the boundaries of the physical world and promises genuinely new knowledge. The humanities press otherwise: to the human condition we all share. This inward geography is timeless, born anew in each of us. Allowed to explore that world in the company of those who have evoked it most powerfully, students respond enthusiastically. That’s why adults remember so well their own encounter with profound works, and why their children are waiting for their chance.

David Steiner is executive director of the Institute for Education Policy and professor of education at Johns Hopkins University. Mark Bauerlein is professor of English at Emory University and senior editor of First Things Magazine.

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Colleges must develop interdisciplinary training for future technology and public policy leaders (opinion)

We’re at a turning point in the digital age, a moment when head-spinning technological innovations revolutionize every facet of our lives. Yet computer scientists, engineers and other technologists leading this revolution have stumbled, failing to anticipate the broader impact of their technological creations. Those failures risk undermining the public’s trust in the institutions and systems that bind us together as a society and community.

The time to harness technologies’ potential to do good is now. Our country’s colleges and universities have been crucial nerve centers of our digital age, incubating some of the most exciting technological innovations and educating leaders in the field. They can play a vital role in ensuring that the next generation of technologists in partnership with those that shape public policy are equipped to apply their skills and knowledge to questions of individual rights, justice, social welfare and the public good. That’s why we’re seeing more and more colleges and universities begin to develop programs at the intersection of public service and technology -- and why we need even more to get on board and build a new field of public interest technology.

Our vision for this nascent field must be bold and inclusive. Imagine a world in which we train the next generation of technologists to leverage the power of technology to serve the public interest and offer them clear pathways to public service careers -- in the same way that law schools have trained generations of public interest lawyers through robust academic programs and career pipelines.

Members of the Public Interest Technology University Network

  • Arizona State University
  • Carnegie Mellon University
  • City University of New York
  • Columbia University
  • Florida International University
  • Georgetown University
  • Georgia Institute of Technology
  • Harvard University
  • Howard University
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Miami Dade College
  • Olin College of Engineering
  • Pardee RAND Graduate School
  • Pepperdine University
  • Princeton University
  • Stanford University
  • University of California, Berkeley
  • University of Chicago
  • University of Michigan
  • University of Texas at Austin
  • University of Virginia

Many colleges and universities are beginning to make that picture a reality. The University of Chicago has pioneered a joint degree in computational science and public policy. The John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University has launched a Digital HKS initiative designed to explore policy, technology and social change. The Georgia Institute of Technology offers a summer internship on Civic Data Science, which places students in teams with local government and nonprofit organizations. Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy and the College of Engineering offer a degree in public policy and management with a data-analytics focus.

Today, these institutions and 17 others have come together to launch the Public Interest Technology University Network (PITUN). Last summer, their presidents and provosts met to discuss the work that their institutions are doing to build knowledge and career pathways to inspire and incentivize a generation of public interest technologists. Now, they are joining to build a field of public interest technology.

On college campuses across the country, academic demand for public interest technology programming is high, and many students have begun self-organizing to share these opportunities with their peers. For example, students at Harvard University started Coding It Forward to teach their peers about service design and place them in summer fellowships at federal agencies. In the three years since its creation, more than 2,000 students have applied to the program.

Moreover, social demand for the field is high -- and rising every day. Without formal training, technology leaders often fail to understand the potential societal impacts of their products and design accordingly, while policy leaders often fail to find the most efficient systems for designing and measuring the impact of social programs that deliver services to millions.

We have much work to do. We are currently underinvesting in academic programs that provide the next generation of technology and policy leaders with the interdisciplinary training they need to succeed. That must change. We need to invest in a future where policy and technology will be increasingly intertwined.

Philanthropy also has a major role to play. The Ford Foundation had a central role in the early funding of public interest law as a distinct field of work, spurring the evolution of legal aid programs and the entire field of legal advocacy. More recently, the Hewlett Foundation has taken a leading position on cyberpolicy, building a robust support network that allows institutions to take the lead on policy work, creates a talent pipeline of experts available to serve both government and industry, and establishes a platform to disseminate key learnings to the public and policy makers. These key models and lessons inform the Public Interest Technology University Network as it seeks to develop the emerging field of public interest technology.

Colleges and universities are essential to growing the pipeline of public interest technologists, who represent key problem solvers at a time when information technology, innovation and artificial intelligence are reshaping every area of our lives. But the pipeline is only part of the broader public interest technology ecosystem that must be constructed. Government agencies and civic organizations at every level of operation must recognize the value of having technologists as team members, not simply to create technology but also to imagine new solutions and assess what technology can achieve -- and, realistically, what it cannot.

In the private sector, technology companies must recognize the need for technologists with a much deeper understanding of public impact, purpose, ethics and politics. Additionally, these companies and their alumni, who have made their fortunes through technology, should be supporting public interest technology programs, internships and fellowships -- in the same way law firms and wealthy lawyers support their law schools.

With technology shaping nearly every aspect of our lives, undertaking this kind of collaborative campaign to unite technology and the public interest cannot come a moment too soon.

Anne-Marie Slaughter is CEO of New America. Darren Walker is president of the Ford Foundation. Larry Kramer is president of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. The Public Interest Technology University Network will have a fall 2019 enrollment period for universities and colleges that are interested in becoming members in 2020. Learn more here.

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The importance of a return to a more profound meaning of vocational education (opinion)

“Find the college that’s the best fit for you!” So touts the website of the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard, an online tool to compare the cost and value of American colleges and universities. The aim is to increase transparency and help students and their parents make smart decisions about college.

Yet despite good intentions, the Scorecard -- like other computer-generated filtering systems -- can’t provide the information that prospective students and their families may need most. By focusing narrowly on numerical data, such instruments ignore the momentous personal development that takes place during the undergraduate years, as well as the ways that college prepares a student for lifelong personal and professional success. In the face of these weighty concerns, a statistical measurement such as such as “cost-of-attendance to first-year-salary ratio” is hardly the most important factor under consideration.

People who are shopping for college are looking for something more. They want a career that pays a good salary but also one that suits their talents and interests. They need a sense of fit with their chosen occupation, so that they can manage the occasional obstacles and the inevitable stress. They want to graduate on time, but only if their academic program has made them nimble enough to navigate a variety of jobs (and even careers) over a lifetime. And most students still hope that college will equip them with a sense of purpose, offer worthy adventures and guide them toward a fulfilling life.

Such “quality of life” goals have been given increasing attention over the past two decades, reaching back at least to Loren Pope’s 1996 book Colleges That Change Lives. Of course, such goals need not stand in opposition to financial concerns; a bachelor’s degree, regardless of major field or type of institution, will on average mean nearly double the income of a high school diploma over a lifetime. College remains a good financial investment. Yet it also offers much more: it helps students cultivate agility and breadth, discover their gifts and talents, clarify their passions and interests, and develop a meaningful philosophy of life.

Toward a New Meaning of “Vocation”

We can’t expect the Department of Education to construct a College Scorecard for Nimble Graduates, Good Career Fit and Meaningful Lives. But we can point prospective students and parents to the increasing body of empirical research that demonstrates how college improves the odds of success in some of these realms. One important contribution is Tim Clydesdale’s 2015 book The Purposeful Graduate. After an extensive multiyear study of a diverse array of campuses, the author concluded that colleges achieved positive results through intentional programming of a specific kind. The subtitle of his book introduces a key word in this discussion: Why Colleges Must Talk to Students About Vocation.

In the medieval era in the West, the Latin verb vocare (“to call”) often had theological ramifications. To have a vocation was to be called by God into the priesthood or a religious order. In the Reformation era, Martin Luther and others argued that all people are called to particular ways of life. Civic leaders, tradespeople, homemakers, parents -- all of these individuals should consider their various occupations, domestic roles and civic contributions to be part of their calling. Vocation is for everyone.

Unfortunately, a number of later developments -- including the rise of capitalism, the industrial revolution and the increasing prominence of paid work in our lives -- meant that “vocation” came to be associated primarily with how one made a living. During much of the 20th century, “vocational education” typically meant learning a trade.

During the last several decades, however, an earlier meaning of the word “vocation” has come back into use, particularly in independent higher education. This has occurred not only in religiously affiliated colleges (where the term’s theological resonances might be accented) but also in secular institutions. Across the country, faculty and staff members in undergraduate programs -- in the classroom and in the residence halls, on the athletic field and at the career center -- are using this language more regularly. College isn’t just about getting a job. It’s about finding your calling.

The language of vocation or calling has become more popular because, while it addresses many of the quality-of-life issues described above, it does not neglect the pressures felt by college students and their parents about future employment. After all, when students find themselves attracted to a particular field of study -- and begin to consider the kinds of work to which it might lead -- they are already thinking in vocational terms. What draws me toward this particular discipline? Am I any good at it? Does it interest me enough to sustain me over the long haul? Does it prepare me to do work that the world needs, at this time and in this place?

Such questions are important ones for undergraduates to be asking -- which explains why foundations such as the Lilly Endowment have provided generous grants to institutions that are willing to encourage vocational reflection. In fact, Lilly has just announced a new grant of nearly $10 million to support this work at small and medium-size independent colleges and universities.

Vocational thinking also recognizes that, while a student’s field of study and future career are certainly important, a variety of other issues need attention as well. The concept of vocation is capacious enough to accommodate myriad other questions that undergraduates face. Where and with whom will I live? What kinds of civic and volunteer organizations will I join? What will I do with my leisure time? What are the trade-offs among the various aspects of my work (salary, time commitment, stress level, impact on family life)? When students look at their future through the lens of a vocation -- and not simply a job or career -- these questions become more prominent. Attending to one’s calling significantly increases the likelihood that, regardless of career field, one’s work will play a positive role in the construction of a life well lived.

Yes, most parents hope that their kids will finish college on time and earn a good first-year salary (or at least some kind of salary!). But that first year may turn out be the last year in a particular job if a graduate discovers that the work doesn’t fit. Better to spend a little more time reflecting on one’s talents and gifts, listening to the advice of mentors, and shadowing practitioners. Better to use the undergraduate years to engage with the work of writers, artists, visiting speakers and peers -- all of whom can nudge students to ask the big questions and to think about how they might lead a life that matters.

Consider, for example, how Augustana College developed a new program that integrates career advising, undergraduate research and vocational reflection -- thereby helping students discern how their particular interests and talents align with the work they hope to undertake after graduation. Or consider Dominican University’s decision to build vocational reflection into each year of its core curriculum, nudging students through a broad consideration of deep, existential concerns and then providing opportunities that will help them make the transition from college to career. Elizabethtown College weaves together experiential options for discernment with an emphasis on interfaith leadership, while Bluffton University capitalizes on strong student interest in community engagement to integrate academic study with a concern for social justice. These examples represent only a small fraction of the innovative programming at academic institutions that have taken up the banner of vocation.

Why Vocation Makes a Difference

Why does a vocational approach to undergraduate education make such a significant difference in the lives of students? A complete answer to this question would fill several books. (And, fortunately, several are being published; this article has links to three of them.) One key feature: the language of vocation and calling tends to reverse the direction in which college students typically think about their future. The most common pattern is to ask, “What do I want to do?” and then simply to choose among the available options. Most 20-year-olds have a difficult time sorting out the many things that they want in life, and most of them find it daunting to make a choice that they’ll have to live with for a long time. William T. Cavanaugh, director of the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology at DePaul University, draws a parallel to consumer choice: we’re not sure what we want, and we tend to anticipate future regrets about our decisions -- even as we are deciding.

Vocational thinking turns that pattern around, asking not only about the ways that our internal motivations push us in certain directions, but also how external motivations pull us. Margaret E. Mohrmann thoughtfully explores that distinction in an essay titled “Vocation Is Responsibility.” Rather than focusing only on internal drives, students should also consider the call of what lies outside us. Where am I being drawn? What am I hearing from others about where my talents lie? What is happening in the wider world, and what are those events telling me about what needs to be done?

Some undergraduates find themselves cultivating a particular faith tradition or philosophical perspective that helps them think through these questions; others may rely on educators, mentors and counselors; still others might find that a series of guided discussions with their peers can be a clarifying process. In all of these cases, one element is constant: students are not left on their own to make all these decisions, based only on their own desires. Instead, a “community of conversation” helps students to think about where they are being called.

Some of the nation’s most effective colleges and universities have long recognized these realities. Many strive to build mentoring programs, in which faculty members work one on one with students to help them think about their callings. They organize retreats and teach-ins, bring successful alumni back to campus, and create shadowing opportunities and conversation groups that give students a chance to test their vocational inclinations and aspirations. They also seek to integrate discussions of vocation and calling into the classroom, both in their general education curriculum and in the major fields of study.

In sum, the language of vocation provides faculty members and administrators with an excellent opportunity to address many of the most significant concerns of incoming college students and their parents. They can commit to helping students find a starting job and a starting career that suit their talents and interests, while still attending to the big questions that arise with particular force during the college years. By cultivating the vocabulary of vocation and calling, colleges and universities can offer a more integrated educational program, emphasizing that career planning should go hand in hand with an exploration of deep issues of meaning, purpose and identity.

In doing so, they will be reminding prospective students and their parents that mechanical filters and scorecards don’t provide much of a guide to the quality of particular educational options. If the ultimate goal is genuine success in college and in life, then the undergraduate experience will need to include curricular and co-curricular programming that helps students reflect on the meaning of life. It will also require professors and mentors who can help students integrate those reflections into their future hopes and expectations. In short, undergraduates will be best served when the colleges they attend have demonstrated a willingness to help them explore, reflect upon and discern their vocations.

David S. Cunningham is the director of the Network for Vocation in Undergraduate Education (NetVUE), a consortium of more than 200 colleges and universities that foster programs of vocational exploration and discernment on their campuses to help students find their calling.

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Why longer lives require relevant, accessible curricula throughout long careers (opinion)

My summer reading list, which never gets finished, included one book that, as a leader in continuing education, I found especially provocative. The 100-Year Life: Living and Working in an Age of Longevity (Bloomsbury), by London School of Economics professors Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott, should be on every higher education leader’s list. Unlike technological change, which gets tremendous press and is seen as a key driver of the need to “upskill” and “retool” workers, longevity is much harder to see or feel. But its impacts on higher education are already being felt as the student population skews older, and new forms of higher learning gain traction.

Demographics have shifted to such an extent that the term “nontraditional student,” as applied to adult learners who graduated high school more than a few years ago, no longer makes sense. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 74 percent of students are considered nontraditional, a category including those “being independent for financial aid purposes, having one or more dependents, being a single caregiver, not having a traditional high school diploma, delaying postsecondary enrollment, attending school part time and being employed full time.”

Traditional college experiences are often considered the end of the first of three phases of American life: school, career and retirement. But for the minority of citizens fortunate enough to go to college, that outdated view is changing rapidly. We see an increasing number of news articles speaking to this reality of new traditional learners, but these writings rarely go into much detail about longevity as a causal factor.

I have mentioned the 100-Year Life in multiple conversations and talks over the last few months. Its description of increased longevity does not generate excitement, but rather anxiety and disdain. As the authors note in their opening pages, that anxiety is real if you view living and working through the same three-life-stage lens (school, career, retirement) and expect the long deterioration of health typical of the relatively few centurions among us today -- seeing longevity as a curse rather than a gift. Gratton and Scott attempt to assuage these concerns by sharing that trends in health care will limit debilitating physical maladies to shorter windows closer to the end of life and that the three stages will not be the way most people structure their lives.

Much like we might feel anxiety as individuals when we think about the implications of longevity, our institutions of higher learning can also view the extension of life as either a gift or a curse. Challenges and opportunities abound as we consider the possibilities.

A significant change is that higher education will no longer be seen as the end of the start-of-life phase. While acknowledging that higher education already consists of many different types of institutions serving different ages, even traditional research universities will need to grapple with the implications of maintaining or ending ageist classrooms, changing delivery technologies and shifting expectations for the appropriate life stage in which any one student engages in college.

One way to avoid institutional anxiety about increasing longevity is to shun assumptions about universities based on current practice and to look for opportunity. Even before publication of the 100-Year Life, Gary Matkin, dean of the Division of Continuing Education at the University of California, Irvine, coined the term “the 60-year curriculum” as a way of more clearly defining the modern era of lifelong learning. As longevity becomes a more prevalent societal force, the 100-year life will require a 60-year curriculum (60YC).

What Is the 60YC?

At the University of Washington (UW) Continuum College, we are operationally defining the 60YC as the formal higher educational experiences an individual will need over a 60-year (or more) working life. The words are specifically chosen to differentiate the 60YC from other forms of learning that are emerging. For example, when I need to fix a problem with my computer, an anonymous 12-year-old has usually uploaded a video to YouTube with step-by-step instructions. These and other forms of learning are a significant part of the landscape but will not be sufficient to support more substantive life changes. Defining the 60YC has led my team to focus on five key areas for strategic development: credentialing, the “metacurriculum,” learner services, the new academic stack and policy and funding issues.


The venerable four-year undergraduate degree remains the gold standard for higher education, and that is not likely to change any time soon. Today, master’s degrees, doctorates and the increasingly undifferentiated certificate round out the most commonly issued credentials. We see the edge of change occurring first in the nondegree space. For example, the noncredit career offerings at the UW Continuum College grew by 11 percent in 2017-18 to include more than 5,000 learners. Additionally, learners by the tens of thousands are selecting online providers (sometimes offering university courses), boot camps and other new forms of higher learning outside the traditional academy. Most of these forms do not result in a degree but some form of certificate. As learning stretches over a lifetime, it is likely we will need new nomenclature and new markers of completion that characterize formal learning in more distinct ways and allow more granular tracking of skills and knowledge.

The “Metacurriculum” Over a 60-Year Working Life

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines curriculum as “a set of courses constituting an area of specialization.” The set of courses in a typical curriculum can have wide variability (e.g., electives, tracks) but is still a defined set of activities, usually leading to a specified credential. The 60-year curriculum is a term intended to define learning across a lifespan, not a distinct course of study. The UW Continuum College is calling the 60YC a “metacurriculum” intended to serve as a framework for learning activities rather than a specified scope and sequence of instructional content. The approach here is to view all programming through a lens of multiple life stages, not the no-longer-realistic three-stage life.

Learner Services

A learner is not going to be enrolled in a single college’s programs for 60 years. While we posit that a learner’s connectivity to a university will become continuous and less episodic, it is unlikely to be ongoing. The complexity of offerings is also increasing. For example, our catalog lists at least 24 different types of programs that contain the word “data.’” Choosing the right program at the right time in career and life will be critical and progressively more difficult. Connecting learners to these experiences when they need them, and ensuring that outcomes and expectations are met, will be the role of new forms of service staff. For example, we have a new coaching unit and retention staff among our emerging world of learner services.

The New Academic Stack

Each element in the 60YC will be mediated by new forms of technology, which we call the “new academic stack.” It will be impossible to track even a single learner across decades of life without rethinking digital infrastructure. Already, new forms of credentialing software are emerging to digitize and add data to our previous sheepskin diplomas. At the core of our new academic stack is a customer management system. While typically associated with marketing and recruiting, a CRM becomes the glue that helps personalize offerings across disparate learning activities by maintaining all learner-university interactions. Mobile technology, artificial intelligence and new forms of delivery will be commonplace in the 60YC.

Policies and Funding

College debt is now more than $1.5 trillion in the United States alone. Saying to these same indebted students, “This is just the beginning of your learning!” does not generate excitement. In fact, it can create the same anxiety as the gift of longevity. To make a lifetime of learning affordable and energizing first requires setting aside the three-stage model of life. The balance of financial expectations will require a very different support system of parents, learner, government and business. The 60YC might also mean re-examining policies about what it means to be successful in a college career. Perhaps the notion of four- or six-year graduation rates will have to be rethought as we reconsider what success means over much longer periods. Old accreditation models, already under pressure, will certainly be challenged as new forms of learning emerge from the academy and other providers are included in the mix.

The Possible Curse and Dangers of the 60YC

When discussing the 60YC, it can be tempting to focus on work. Even the definition I put forward in this article indicates the 60YC is about the working life of the individual. It would, however, be a huge mistake to think that the 60YC is only about acquiring the technical skills to succeed in a series of jobs until one retires. Some in higher education are already beginning to cry out that having other paths will lead to tiered higher education -- with some students being tracked into vocational jobs while others are tracked into positions of leadership. While this is a danger of the 60YC, one does not need to look far to see the 67 percent of American adults who do not succeed in today’s model to understand that we could not create a more harshly tiered system of higher education if we tried.

For the minority of students who will continue to follow a more traditional academic path through college, having campus experiences that broaden thinking and extend the mind beyond instrumental work practices will continue for many decades. But for the majority, the 60YC can mean new opportunities.

The Gift of the 60YC: New Pathways and Opportunities

Viewing the 60YC as a gift, rather than a curse, means thinking about the opportunities to open the door to more individuals to benefit from higher education. The 60YC implies a nearly infinite number of successful pathways through higher education. Many of those paths cannot be determined today but, in the evolution, we see examples of what could be. Imagine stacking credentials slowly, perhaps starting with an in-demand skill, then adding depth in that skill, leadership and other more expanded theoretical approaches. Perhaps at 52, one might stop work and spend a year earning a specialized credential in the humanities or social sciences. At this new definition of midlife, such pursuits are not mere “enrichment.” They could be perhaps more central to living a good life than a philosophy degree earned at 22.

This evolution in paths might mean the emergence of new institutional forms. California is embarking on an experiment with an online community college that will focus on competency-based credentials for adults in the work force. What is interesting about the approach is that the current concept focuses on granting credentials but not necessarily degrees. This is one way that higher education might shift to prepare for a 100-year life.

Research institutions are also developing new approaches to continuous learning. For example, UW Continuum College now serves over 55,000 learners around the world each year. Programs reach people in many life stages, including summer youth camps, international English language programs, UW in the high school, summer quarter, online undergraduate completion programs, more than 110 professional master’s degrees, 100 nondegree certificate programs and an Osher Lifelong Learning Institute for “seasoned learners” over 50. The spectrum of learning opportunities offered by UW Continuum College already exceeds a 60-year working life, and the goal is now building learner services, multi-life-stage program differentiation and the supporting technologies. The University of California, Irvine, Division of Continuing Education, Harvard Extension and New York University’s School of Continuing Studies are among a number of extended learning units at major research universities that are investing in similar efforts.

Another example of how this might evolve comes from China. Per The Economist, in China there are now more than 70,000 institutions for elder learners. Some of these institutions are harder to get into than our most exclusive universities. In some provinces, only one of every 16 applicants is admitted. While enrichment learning is a significant component, many of these elder institutions offer traditional academic learning, too.

Perhaps as work on the 60YC continues, we will see more age-specific institutions like those in China emerge, or, as Gratton and Scott hope, our existing institutions will expand to encompass a more differentiated learning landscape over a much longer life. It is my hope that leaders in higher education consider the impact a 100-year life will have on the way people experience and require learning, and in turn, create relevant, accessible curricula that help people live more meaningful lives.

Rovy Branon is vice provost for the University of Washington Continuum College, the university's continuing education and professional development arm, which provides innovative learning paths for traditional and nontraditional students

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Arguments in support of a humanities education should not focus just on economic outcomes (opinion)

Our democracy was founded on an expectation that its citizens have a moral and historical obligation to be discerning, neither ciphers receptive to any pronouncement nor cynics receptive to none. That’s why I find a fable that Benjamin Franklin tells in his “Apology to Printers” to be particularly relevant to the state of the humanities today.

It is about “a certain well-meaning man and his son,” who were traveling to market to sell their donkey. The old man rode the donkey, and his son walked beside them, but the first traveler they encountered chastised the father for riding while his son walked. In response, the man lifted his son behind him. The next person they met blamed them for cruelly subjecting the animal to their combined weight, so the man got off and let the boy ride alone. The next shouted at the boy for allowing his elderly father to walk while he rode and at the man for indulging such behavior.

So the man asked his son to join him on the ground and they proceeded, leading the donkey by a halter. Until they met a group who ridiculed them for going on foot when they had a perfectly suitable creature to ride. At which point, the old man could bear it no longer; “My son, said he, it grieves me much that we cannot please all these people: let us throw the ass over the next bridge, and be no farther troubled with him."

Franklin instructs his fellow printers on the folly of worrying about trying to please everyone. Conversely, no printer who declares independence from the obligation to please anyone would long survive. We can be neither eternally responsive nor devoid of responsibility.

The current state of the humanities, whether considered in crisis or robust, clearly is undergoing a period of self-reflection and self-defense, both of which stem from a gratifying albeit belated turn toward self-preservation. Economic concerns, political assaults and misaligned rhetoric have diminished humanities majors, faculty positions and programmatic stability. The old maxim that community thrives in the face of adversity, however, seems finally to be gathering traction in a collection of disciplines and methodologies famously independent and disputatious. The marshaling of evidence, adroit interrogation and cogent argument -- long the essential skill sets of the humanities -- are being implemented no longer solely in the service of its scholarly and pedagogical practices but also for explanation to the uninitiated of what those practices entail and why they are crucial.

In response to the erosion of humanities’ prominence in higher education and threats to defund the National Endowment for the Humanities, we have seen business leaders from across the economy championing humanities education as essential preparation for the next generation of workers in their sectors. Many Fortune 500 CEOs point to their undergraduate humanities degrees as key to their success. Philanthropists like Bill Miller and David Rubenstein have made humanities education and historic preservation high priorities.

After a generally vexed eschewal of public engagement as crucial to its mission, humanities practitioners and institutions now are becoming more actively engaged in asserting the value of their disciplines in broader contexts. Attachments to problem solving, particularly in relation to issues of citizenship, global crises and economic viability are increasingly elevated and clarified. A promising expression in this new era of active public engagement is the production of resources, information sites and online communities that offer materials, gather scholarship and promote dialogue for individuals from both inside and out of the academy. Examples include the Humanities Indicators project from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, the MLA Action Network and the recent website from the National Humanities Alliance.

Increasingly as well, the National Humanities Center has focused attention on raising awareness about and appreciation of the humanities through its Humanities Moments initiative and its recently launched Humanities in Action site. In addition to highlighting the transformative power of the humanities in individual and collective experience, these resources offer repositories of best practices and credibly vetted information about vital concerns as well as basic explanations about what the humanities are and why they are important.

However, there is a cautionary note to this groundswell of activism and engagement. Should it continue to dwell predominantly as a defensive response to those who mistakenly deride the economic outcomes of a humanities education, it risks being subsumed by similar terminology and rhetoric. Such an exclusively reactionary focus, rather than mitigating erosion, threatens a continued dwindling of the imaginative, interrogative and empathetic impulses core to the humanities that deserve enhancement and celebration even if devoid of immediate monetary value. The power of the humanities is best revealed on our shared pursuit of common and essential questions about what it means to be human. What constitutes a good life? How do we know the truth? How do we preserve democracy? The foundational role of the humanities in a civil society stems from the connections made between the lessons learned from history, literature and philosophy and the significant moments in our personal lives.

Franklin’s apology to printers is instructive for humanists. While effectively countering erroneous and insidious attacks on our raison d’être remains central to our survival, we need to avoid a capitulation to narrow definitions of value that evade the nuance and complexity so ingrained in the humanities. To do so would be akin to throwing our asses over the next bridge in thoughtless gestures of accommodation.

Robert Newman is the president and director of the National Humanities Center.

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The humanities provide practical workplace and life skills (opinion)

In an era of extreme creativity and growth in the high-tech industry, more and more college students are selecting science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) fields for their course of study. In 2016, nearly 30 percent of male and 15 percent of female college graduates earned their bachelor’s degree in a science or engineering field, while the proportion of humanities majors is dropping precipitously. In response to changing students’ preferences, colleges are under pressure to divert resources in terms of faculty members and courses toward STEM and away from the humanities.

Does this matter? With the rising costs of a college education, parents and students alike may find comfort in more “practical” majors, which may prepare students to attain one of the many emerging jobs in the high-tech or science-based industries. In this case, the shift in majors reflects a wise adaptation to the new economy.

But as the president of a liberal arts college, I worry that majoring in something “practical” has been conflated with holistic preparation for the trials of work and life, the ultimate purpose of a liberal arts education. The humanities -- the academic fields that study the human condition, society and culture -- prepare young adults for the most essential aspects of work: getting along with other people, understanding multiple points of view and coming to terms with one’s place in the world. As such, students of all majors need exposure to the humanities to be adequately -- and practically -- prepared for the working world.

Students who take a course in history, literature, and culture delve into a myriad of stories and events that reveal how people have worked and lived throughout history. Students who study in the humanities learn about hierarchy, power, deceit, injustice, love, compassion, sacrifice, rebellion and lust -- the range of human emotions and behaviors that have molded and continue to shape our realities. As Yale University professor John Hare says, “We read the classics to make us feel less lonely.” They help us realize that we are not the first to experience anything on this earth, but are part of a larger collective experience of being human.

I have seen that happen in my seminar as students study the life of Octavian Augustus. Most of the 19- or 20-year-old seminar students initially admire or even envy young Octavius, whom Julius Caesar chose to inherit Rome before he was 20 years old. But chapters later, students read that the same person connived to murder hundreds of people, including the great republican statesman Cicero, to solidify his power. Students struggle to come to terms with a character who is both admirable and despicable, who is perhaps as complex as we all are. By studying history and literature, students confront these human dilemmas, paradoxes and irrationalities that have engaged leaders and thinkers for generations, preparing them for the challenges they will confront in their professional, political, social and cultural lives.

Perhaps I have been too long a professor of public health, but I see the humanities as a type of preventive medicine, the study of which increases students’ subsequent resilience in the face of difficult life experiences. A college graduate who has studied the inappropriate use of power in history or literature, for instance, can better understand how abuse of power functions in contemporary society within the larger context of human affairs. As a result, graduates are better prepared to manage their responses, recognize the larger patterns of human behavior and effectively deal with such challenges in their own lives.

The same is true for their careers. CEO after CEO of tech companies echoes this mantra: learning to code is important, but understanding not just how to build things but also how to build things people want and need is crucial. Understanding those desires comes not just from mining data but also from intuitively gleaning human patterns from the data. The ability to create solutions that are elegant, graceful and easy to use develops not just from learning the technology; it requires a broader understanding of history, literature and, yes, art.

The late Steve Jobs put it this way: “A lot of people in our industry haven't had very diverse experiences. So they don't have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one's understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.”

The skills learned in the humanities are practical, and, even better they are timeless. At Vassar, we have a long history of multidisciplinary work that integrates STEM and humanities. Recognizing that computer coding, statistics and robotics are fundamental to advancement, the Vassar education also offers the careful, deep study of humanities and arts -- an education that provides enduring insights about our changing society, as well as the vital capability to shape our world for the better.

Elizabeth H. Bradley is president of Vassar College.

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College doubles down on its residential liberal arts mission with new core curriculum

College doubles down on its residential liberal arts mission with new core curriculum.


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