The liberal arts are dead, or — at best — dying. That's the theme of story after story in today’s news media.
Professional skills training is in. The STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields are in. Practical, vocational higher education is in. The liberal arts are out, relics of a “traditional” way of thinking that has been overtaken by the pressing demands of our dizzyingly complex digital age.
As new students arrived on college campuses this fall, the message many of them heard is that majoring in history, or English, or anthropology is a surefire recipe for a life of irrelevance and poor job prospects. These “conventional” disciplines cannot possibly train students for productive, enriching careers in the high-tech information age whose future is now.
Although this viewpoint is rapidly gaining the status of settled wisdom, it is tragically misguided. It is based on a false dichotomy, namely that the liberal arts and the more vocational, preprofessional, practical disciplines — like, say, computer science — are fundamentally different and opposed. But this misunderstands both the age we’re living in and the challenges we face, not to mention one of the most significant trends in higher education over the last few decades — the evolution of interdisciplinarity.
In essence, this whole debate comes down to skills. The liberal arts are often said by critics to provide little that is of “practical value” in the “real world.” In reality, though, liberal arts curriculums can and do give students skills that are just as professionally useful as those in more “relevant” occupationally specific fields of study.
At my university, the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, students this fall can declare a new major called global studies, which integrates courses in 12 liberal arts departments — including economics, geography and environmental systems, history, media and communication studies, and political science — into a rigorous interdisciplinary curriculum. Majors are required to study abroad and to achieve fluency in at least one foreign language. By graduation, they will have demonstrated their research, analytical, critical-thinking, and writing skills in a substantial, “capstone” research project. Our students will also do internships with companies, not-for-profits, and government agencies.
Equally important, they will develop “global competence,” which employers in many professions have identified as one of the most desirable, but grossly lacking, sets of skills required of their new employees. Broadly defined, global competence is “the capacity and disposition to understand and act on issues of global significance.” Its central elements include knowledge of world affairs — cultural, economic, and political; proficiency in communicating with people in and from other societies, both verbally and in writing; the ability to appreciate multiple perspectives and respect cultural diversity; and the intellectual and psychological flexibility to adapt to unfamiliar and rapidly changing circumstances.
Developing the skills that we hope to instill in UMBC’s global studies majors is an inherently interdisciplinary mission. In a recent New York Times column, Yale professor Nicholas Christakis argues that the social sciences (a subset of the liberal arts) badly trail the natural sciences in generating innovative “institutional structures” that can produce the kind of cutting-edge science necessary for solving some of the world’s most intractable — often intrinsically interdisciplinary — problems. However, he also notes that this is beginning to change, for example, in the form of a new global affairs major at Yale.
Whether it’s global studies at UMBC or global affairs at Yale, these exciting new programs tangibly articulate why talking about liberal arts education versus practical training creates the false perception that these two enterprises are essentially at odds. At UMBC, it's the combination of interdisciplinary liberal arts education; substantial research, writing and analysis; rigorous foreign language training; study abroad; and experiential learning in the form of internships and other applied opportunities that will give students the skills they will need to thrive and “do good” in the 21st century.
The tragedy is that we might blow it. If we continue to present students with a false choice between the liberal arts and “real-world” vocational training, we will produce what social scientists like to call “suboptimal” outcomes. Too many talented, energetic, hard-working students will choose “safe” educational and career paths, and too many truly global problems will go unsolved.