In my 14-year tenure as president I have often been asked to define and defend the notion of a "useful" liberal arts education. The general public has difficulty associating the liberal arts with anything useful. That obstacle prompts them to dismiss liberal arts colleges as repositories of graduates with majors such as philosophy, history, anthropology and American studies who cannot get jobs. The thought that these same colleges also have majors such as biology, chemistry, physics and economics is totally missed.
The public is not to blame. American higher education never really experienced the American Revolution. While we threw away the oppressive dictates of monarchy, we never threw off the privileged notion of an English upper class liberal education that was literally defined as being only for those with sufficient wealth to do nothing professionally but dabble in learning. We remained enthralled by the notion of learning for learning’s sake and despite our emerging pragmatic nature, wanted our education to remain sublime and removed from the business of life.
There were prominent founders of the nation who argued for a new kind of liberal education for a new kind of nation. Thomas Jefferson urged a "practical education" for his University of Virginia. And Benjamin Rush, the founder of Dickinson College, decried the unwillingness of Americans to reform education after the Revolution:
It is equally a matter of regret, that no accommodation has been made in the system of education in our seminaries [colleges] to the new form of our government and the many national duties, and objects of knowledge, that have been imposed upon us by the American Revolution. Instead of instructing our sons in the Arts most essential to their existence, and in the means of acquiring that kind of knowledge which is connected to the time, the country, and the government in which they live, they are compelled to spend [time] learning two languages which no longer exist, and are rarely spoken, which have ceased to be the vehicles of Science and literature, and which contain no knowledge but what is to be met with in a more improved and perfect state in modern languages. We have rejected hereditary power in the governments of our country. But we continue the willing subjects of a system of education imposed upon us by our ancestors in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Had agriculture, mechanics, astronomy, navigation and medicine been equally stationary, how different from the present would have been the condition of mankind!
But these singular calls for a more pragmatic education in America to match a new form of government went largely unheeded. Rush’s founding of Dickinson is particularly illustrative. In his 1785 "Plan of Education" he called for a "useful liberal education." The curriculum was to be absent instruction in the writing and speaking of Greek and Latin, but rich in instruction of German, French, Spanish and even Native American languages as those would be highly useful to Americans striving to establish a native economy that would grow as it interacted linguistically with trading nations throughout the world and in the United States. Democracy was to be established through commerce informed by useful liberal education. Liberal education, commerce and democracy were interdependent. The Dickinson course of study was also to include chemistry as Rush thought this subject held the greatest number of connections to emerging knowledge useful to the nation.
The first president of the college and Rush’s fellow trustees ignored his plan. They recommitted to what Rush once called "the monkish" course of study, unchanged for centuries.
Latin and Greek were taught and a chemistry professor was not hired. Additionally, the college refused to hire a German professor. Rush was so angry that he founded nearby what was called Franklin College (today Franklin and Marshall College). It wasn’t until 1999 that Rush’s notion of a "useful" liberal education was reintroduced and embraced explicitly as part of a revised mission statement some 216 years after it was introduced.
Unfortunately for those in America today who wish to argue the usefulness, and thus the worthiness, of a liberal arts education, the founding fathers were not explicit. We know that a liberal education was to yield informed citizens who could build and protect the new government. We know that certain courses were to be taken out and others inserted — those that related more to emerging and immediately explicable knowledge, expanded the appreciation of democracy and created new knowledge and wealth that would materially power the nation’s development. A useful liberal arts education was essentially entrepreneurial. But for all the novelty and potent force in this "disruptive technology" in American higher education introduced by the founding fathers, we know little about how a liberal arts education actually becomes useful — that is, how the study of the liberal arts converts to material effect in the wider world.
Much is at stake to define explicitly and to reassert the usefulness of a distinctively American liberal arts education. The liberal arts are under assault by those who, under the mantle of affordability and efficiency, would reject it for the immediate, but often temporary, benefit of higher education defined as job training. My own experience offers a definition for the 21st century, in fact, for any century, where economic uncertainty prevails. I was a German and philosophy double major. At first glance, what could be more useless? And yet, my professional life has proven such a conclusion wrong.
I have been — sometimes simultaneously — a military officer, a pre-collegiate teacher, administrator and coach. I founded an athletic team, developed a major center at a prestigious research university, acted as a senior consultant to the U.S. Department of State with diplomatic status, served as a corporate officer at two publicly traded companies and now serve as president of Dickinson College. For none of these careers did I ever study formally or take a class.
I gained competency through independent reading, experience and observation. I appreciated that the breadth of knowledge and the depth of cognitive skill that my undergraduate courses in social science, political science, art and science prepared me for any field of professional pursuit. I was prepared for professional chance. I knew how to ask the right questions, how to gather information, how to make informed decisions, how to see connections among disparate areas of knowledge, how to see what others might miss, how to learn quickly the basics of a profession, how to discern pertinent information from that which is false or misleading, how to judge good, helpful people from those who wish you ill. All of this I gathered in a useful liberal education — in and out of the classroom — and in an intense residential life where experimentation with citizenship and social responsibility were guiding principles.
There were no formal, discrete courses to learn these habits of mind and action — no courses devoted to brain exercises, critical-thinking skills, leadership and citizenship; rather, professors and staff were united in all interactions to impress upon students day after day, year after year a liberal arts learning environment that was intellectually rigorous and defining. This was contextual learning at its fullest deployment. We absorbed and gradually displayed ultimately useful knowledge and skill not in a studied manner, but discretely and naturally. Time after time in my various careers, I applied these liberal arts skills to solve materially wider-world problems. And most important, except for my military service and my college presidency, none of my jobs existed before I assumed them. My useful education has enabled me to maximize opportunity within highly fluid and changing employment rhythms. As I now face another job transition in my life, I go forward with confidence that something appropriate will develop. I have no concrete plans and I like it that way. I know I am prepared on the basis of my liberal arts education to maximize chance. Something will develop. Something that probably doesn’t yet exist.
I am not alone in my appreciation of the liberal arts. Those of privilege have appreciated liberal education historically. It has contributed to their access and hold on power and influence. Their sons and daughters, generation after generation, have attended liberal arts institutions without hesitation. There is no job training in their educational landscape. It would be tragic if all the new and previously underserved populations now having access to higher education missed the opportunity for their turn at leadership and influence simply because of the outspoken — arguably purposeful — dismissal of the liberal arts as "useless," often by those who received a liberal arts education themselves and intend nothing less for their own children.
William G. Durden is president of Dickinson College.
The liberal arts and sciences have no economic value. Let me repeat that: none, nada. Taught in the right spirit, they are useless from an economic point of view. They are designed in fact to be downright wasteful. The liberal arts’ ancient roots, after all, are from a world in which a few free men had the time -- the leisure -- to engage in study. It was for the elite. The purpose of the liberal arts in ancient times was to offer to the elite the knowledge, morals, and skills (like oratory) that they needed to determine what was good for individuals and the public, and to help achieve that good in society through citizenship.
In a democracy, however, we cannot afford to leave the liberal arts to the elite. In a society in which we expect all people to be effective citizens, all people need to have access to the liberal arts in order to have the knowledge and moral foundation that they need to think about what is a good life and a good society, and the skills necessary to help them work to achieve it here in our democracy. Today’s students need to know a lot about how the human and natural worlds work and they need not just knowledge but the capacity to evaluate — that is to determine the moral value of — different goals, ideas, and policies. This evaluation requires moving well beyond the economic calculus to questions of what is worth it and to understanding our cultural traditions. As Martha Nussbaum has put it, such an education is by definition not for profit.
There is also a second tradition that we have inherited from the ancient world, one more closely tied to Greece -- and Socrates and Plato -- than to the ideal of the Roman free citizen. In this framework, a liberal education is designed to help people seek truth, and to use truth to serve society. While distinct, it too is designed to develop human beings and citizens, not workers. Applied to a democratic society, it means that all citizens must be given opportunities to question their assumptions, to engage in inquiry to gain new insights about the nature of the world. Applied more broadly, such an approach to liberal education recognizes that the pursuit of knowledge develops our human capabilities and fosters our ability to engage with the world -- in work and in play -- with more depth. It too is not for profit.
Of course, in reality, the liberal arts are economically beneficial. They teach the high end “transferable skills” -- critical thinking, analytical ability, creativity, imagination, and the ability to learn new things -- that our economy needs, and without which we would not graduate students capable of innovation. That’s why China and other countries are now embracing the liberal arts even as we abandon them. The liberal arts are also the best preparation for advanced professional training in the “liberal professions” of law and medicine, as well as other fields, including business. Finally, since Thorstein Veblen, we have known that the liberal arts embody a certain kind of prestige that matters in a pecuniary culture. The liberal arts, therefore, may be the best bet for students to achieve long-term economic success.
All of these claims about the economic value of the liberal arts are probably true, but who cares? Not employers. In fact, Anthony Carnevale has concluded that the economic value of a college education depends highly on one’s major now that employers want graduates with specific technical skills (although this may in part reflect the different career goals of graduates with different majors rather than the inherent economic potential of the liberal arts). Certainly, many employers value their own liberal education and will continue to hire the graduates of our nation’s top liberal arts colleges and universities. But while employers no doubt want knowledgeable, thoughtful, critical, and creative employees, they do not want nor need these qualities in all their workers. Instead, increasingly, they want technicians.
Yet we continue to argue that the liberal arts should be defended for their economic value. Such defenses of the liberal arts may turn out to be their true downfall, because they leave us with no language to make clear what the liberal arts are worth. In fact, it means that we must evaluate the liberal arts by a criterion — their profitability — that not only is irrelevant to them but corrupts them, orienting them toward goals that are instrumental in nature and preventing them from serving their true humanistic and civic purposes. In fact, one recent essay has suggested that the liberal arts should be designed to foster entrepreneurs rather than human beings and citizens. If that is the goal of education, we don’t need the liberal arts at all. Instead, we can have everyone engage in entrepreneurial studies programs and abandon the study of chemistry, history, political science, anthropology, biology, or geology.
If our only god is money, we live in a sad society. A long time ago John Kenneth Galbraith pointed out in his book The Affluent Society that our narrow focus on marginal economic gains makes no sense in a society that is no longer facing scarcity. While we may not live in the kind of economic wonderland that marked Galbraith’s 1950s, we still live in an affluent society. While a vibrant economy is a public good, and while people need good-paying jobs, that is not all that we are about, and certainly not the heart of what collegiate education is about.
But how, then, to save the liberal arts if emphasizing their economic value debases them and may even prove to be a losing argument empirically? The answer is simple: remember the ancient ideal that the liberal arts serve human and civic purposes and are therefore designed for people with the leisure to study them. But, in a society committed to equality, we cannot permit only the elite to have access to the liberal arts. Instead we must democratize leisure by offering undergraduate college students the time and opportunity to study the liberal arts.
The way forward, then, is simple. Instead of seeing college as a private investment, we must consider it a public good. If we remember the generation that was educated after World War II, generous public support meant that they could afford -- economically -- to spend four years studying the subject that most interested or spoke to them, and then they took their education and did millions of things with it that helped us develop a richer society, not just in terms of wealth but in terms of knowledge, art, and citizenship. That generation could do so because they did not have to take on thousands of dollars in debt and to worry all the time about how to pay for it. They could do so because public support for their education -- meaning low tuition for students thanks to tax support for America’s colleges -- gave them the freedom -- the leisure -- to study.
The liberal arts are declining because today’s students do not have the leisure to study, much less to study hard. They are worried about their student debt and how to pay it off. They are working long hours at a job that should be spent engaged in study or conversation. They are told that they have to make their college degrees pay for themselves, and we have in turn robbed them of the freedom -- in the ancient sense -- that was the precondition for studying the liberal arts. Saving the liberal arts, then, requires restoring to students the freedom to engage in them.
Johann Neem is associate professor of history at Western Washington University.
Up to half of new graduates, by some estimates, are finding themselves jobless or underemployed. Why? As Andrew Sum, the director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University said, "Simply put, we’re failing kids coming out of college." Recent pieces in The Atlantic and The Weekly Standard (claiming that the proponents of the liberal arts have "lost the war" and the liberal arts has been "killed.") and elsewhere place much of the blame on liberal arts programs.
Let it be known, I was a student of the liberal arts (geography, Asian studies) at a liberal arts college (Clark University) and I founded and run a technology company in Silicon Valley. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I want our so-called "soft" studies (humanities, social sciences) to show some spine and create a response. The typical defense of the status quo involves spinning the value of a liberal arts education, pitching the curriculum as promoting the ability to problem-solve, learn to learn, and thrive in a knowledge economy. If the curriculum is teaching such skills as adapting to a knowledge economy, why can’t the professors that teach such great skills to thrive in a changing world employ them with some grace and poise? How can the liberal arts, itself, adapt to a changing world?
Simply put, we need to rethink what our students do to demonstrate their understanding. I’m not suggesting that we stop teaching literature and history and economics and psychology – or that students stop majoring in these fields. But we need to ask students to create, to experiment, to be bold and possibly fail with projects and deliverables relevant in today’s world. We’re too limited by Blue Book short essays and term papers -- in which success is easily measured and bell-curved. If we shift the way we ask students to demonstrate their knowledge within liberal arts fields, we can prepare students for employment by advancing the liberal arts.
We can achieve this revitalization by asking students to acquire and demonstrate 21st-century skills as the activities and assessments within the liberal arts curriculum. No longer can we assign formats that are isolated exercises; they need to be projects that communicate with and potentially affect the wider world. While peer-reviewed journal articles and regression analysis may be the way that professors communicate, the rest of the world has updated its formats. Academe, and in particular liberal arts programs, may be on the verge of being left behind.
What skills could we teach and measure in a new liberal arts?
Common ways to communicate now include snappy blog entries, reports, collateral material, diagrams, visualizations, illustrations, and infographics. Even scholarly think tanks that discuss the unemployability of undergraduates, such as the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce and the Institute for Higher Education Policy, publish white papers and reports with distinct efforts in graphic design to be distributed for free on the Internet. The Bain Report that famously said a third of all colleges are in poor financial health was released with an interactive website. The term paper should be a dying artifact, and I’m not sure that it is.
Let’s put it this way: as a businessman I wouldn’t pay anyone for a well-written literature review, but I would pay quite handsomely for a brochure that resonates with the audience I am trying to reach. I’d pay more for someone to code it up into a website. Presentations in the work world now model Steve Jobs’ keynotes and TED talks. The governing book on presentation style, Resonate, is filled with directions on communicating bold ideas with simple story structures. The last presentation I saw by an academic was mind-numbingly complex in research and statistical methods. You know what? Nobody paid attention to the research methods; they wanted to understand the key points they should take away, remember, and discuss with others. They were also confused as to why anyone should care in the first place. People walked away feeling like the academic may be thorough and erudite, but that they forgot to communicate in the process.
Liberal arts programs should start with a course on visual communication, and then develop these skills by requiring they be used and demonstrated across the curriculum. These skills include:
Illustration and animation
Oration, rhetoric and narrative
Sketching and drafting
Numeracy and Data Literacy
There are broad advantages to people who can hold their own with math, and this is no longer just about understanding the basics behind a calculator and being able to do accounting. We need to face facts: we teach mathematics as if we’re preparing bookkeepers for the pre-computer world, analysts for big banks, or math and physics professors. But there’s an explosion of jobs that need advanced numeracy and data literacy, with data storage, management, analysis, and visualization techniques all as fundamental skills.
This isn’t a back-room skill set anymore. The job of "data scientist" is being created everywhere simultaneously. If you think the only careers for mathematics are in finance and academe, you can just read about what Facebook expects people on its research team to know. It’s not just tech, either: The New York Times is increasingly using infographics that connect with readers so much someone made a page devoted to them. There is even a startup called visual.ly that’s entirely devoted to producing infographics at scale. If you’ve met anyone going into policy or business after having "thematic" undergraduate coursework, they’ll likely tell you their job encounters statistics and data in ways that make them wish they’d learned more statistics, spreadsheets, analytical software, and other tools that help generate meaning out of all this data.
The new liberal arts should start with and continually ask students to acquire and practice mathematics as a form of analysis and knowledge creation. The necessary skills include:
Data analysis (statistics) and experimentation
Data storage and management
Applied mathematics and mathematical literacy
Estonia just decided all of their first-graders are going to learn to code, and an article in Venture Beat claims that the country will as a result "win the Great Brain Race." The same article says our education system is described as "running on empty when it comes to tech literacy, leaving too many young adults unprepared to compete in a digitally driven economy." Matt Mullenweg, the founder of Wordpress, openly and repeatedly explains, "scripting is the new literacy." Yet, the degrees awarded in computer science dropped in the last decade, and the recent uptick isn’t happening fast enough.
Alternately, we don’t necessarily need more graduates with arcane knowledge of computer science; we need all graduates to be familiar enough with code to use the computer, the Internet, and mobile devices as tools. Academe and the American public need to quit viewing computer science as a geeky back-room endeavor. It has little to do with science, or even computers. Coding is about manipulating information to create meaning, which is likely how you would define writing. After all, there’s a reason they call it a computer "language." Students should understand how to develop these applications on the Web, on mobile devices, and even native to the operating system.
A Call to Action
If you agree with Brian Mitchell from the Edvance Foundation, that "the value of a liberal arts degree ... must be that it is as vital, dynamic, and complex as the civilization that values it," then one must agree that the liberal arts must ask students to engage in work and produce end products that our newly digitized civilization values. And the liberal arts must be as dynamic and vital as its academic proponents claims it to be. I believe it is.
Many liberal arts colleges require a foreign language – not because they believe their history majors will land jobs in France or Mexico, and not because they are being trained as translators, but because they believe the skills learned in a new
language create global citizens who are open to and comfortable with interacting in a multicultural, multilinqual world. It’s the same with the above skills. They need to be understood not as a way to turn philosophy majors into geeks, but into telling the world that a philosophy major can be open to and comfortable with, daresay even take advantage of and thrive in a technologically changing world.
Students who graduate with a degree in liberal arts should understand the basic canon of our civilization as well as their place in the world, sure, but they also need to understand how to explore and communicate their ideas through visual communication, data manipulation, and even making a website or native mobile app. If they can’t, they’ll just understand the global context of their own unemployment.
Michael Staton is founder and chief evangelist of Inigral, Inc. Follow him on Twitter @mpstaton
As a group of women readies to open a sorority to Swarthmore for the first time in 80 years, some students are calling for a schoolwide referendum, arguing that a sorority violates the college's Quaker values and emphasis on learning.