The New Liberal Arts
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:
- Graphic design
- Illustration and animation
- Oration, rhetoric and narrative
- Video production
- 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
- Information design
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.
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